Sunday, 11 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: The Devil's Castle (1896)

Director: Georges Méliès
Screenplay: Georges Méliès
Cast: Jeanne d'Alcy; Georges Méliès

The first horror film ever made. It felt important it watch this for the first time, and even though it turned out to be charming rather than revelatory to see Méliès's three minute film, it cannot be stressed how meaningful it is that it exists. Everything begins here even if the horror films of now are drastically longer. Already from the first film of the genre made it becomes apparent too that "Horror" is as much the wrong name to have called it as much as the right one. A large problem with Horror to audiences and critics is the presumption that it has to be frightening, when in fact I've found that it was a genre more in dealing with the macabre, the dead or the supernatural, reflecting on fears at their most primal level. This doesn't mean it has to be frightening though. It can be funny and it can also be fun, as this short film was.

The first image of the first horror film ever made is a bat flying around a set until it turns into the Devil, fittingly played by the director Méliès himself, the creator playing the figure able to change his environment with a single stroke of the staff. In a single set, a gothic castle, one woman turns into a whole group of witches, cauldrons materialise from nothingness, and various ghouls and skeletons appear to terrorise two cavaliers that enter the castle blindly. Even if one of them gets the advantage over the Devil with a crucifix, the castle of the title looks like it'll always be brimming with ghosts still. Méliès wasn't just important for the images he created but, while never going beyond trick photography into advanced editing or camera movements, for also having brought elaborate production design alongside the visual tricks themselves onscreen. Even in faded, scratched images, I admire the productivity of the content onscreen, also amongst one of the first film directors to create his own worlds in terms of tone and look. Many others created inspired and entertaining trick films around this period and into the 1900s, but Méliès had his own style as far back as into cinematic infancy.

Technical Details:
Méliès' most recognisable trademark is, alongside his elaborate production designs, the trick photography where one object or figure can be replaced by another through frame manipulation. An accidental discovery for Méliès, it proves to still be such a powerful visual trick despite its primitiveness, one object transformed into another entirely different object or vanishing entirely. It's also a powerful effect because its inherently unreal, a trick to the eyes that is clearly faked through the mechanics of a camera but standing out as a result of this. Far from the crudeness of a bad z-grade movie of now where one might dismiss it as appearing in, this simple technique is magical, creating an unreality that vastly contrasted the actuality of the Lumière brothers. That it's clear how it's done is part of its magic too, the lack of physical reality to a computer effect almost always cold for me emotionally to see, without texture or any grasp of reality. Only when its flawed or unreal has it ever stood out. Something like removing a figure out of film frames is both real, because it was made in-camera, and unreal because of the result. Add smoke effects as if a magical abracadabra, and the result is better.

The set and production design is not as elaborate as his later work, but Méliès had a lack of concern in blurring the three and two dimensional in terms of real objects and cut-outs mixing together. What you also realise is that, while Méliès was effectively a cinematic primitive who never moved the camera, he did however show three dimensional space, the foreground and the background as important as each other rather than one having priority over the other. As much as its not to the level of a Citizen Kane (1941) in terms of deep focus, it's the beginnings of this depth of field for such a simplistic movie.

Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Méliès is a standard bearer for fantasy in cinema, the first amongst other directors who made trick films but one who gained a reputation and acclaim for his work of immense stature. That his films were filmed on hand built sets in his own film studio adds to the fantastical quality of his films, the handmade nature and in-camera tricks of his films turning the medium into a plastic and manipulatable form very early into the medium's existence. The Devil's Castle, also known as The Haunted Castle, is also a three minute or so bombardment of transformations and the unpredictable, Méliès not above constant visual tricks one-after-another until anything can change or distort in his films for a laugh or a spectacle. As a magician and stage performer, he didn't necessarily desire to turn cinema into an art form, but the content of his films still holds up over a hundred years later for its imagination.

Personal Opinion:
That it's also the first horror film ever made, as mentioned at the beginning, makes of it of immense importance but not as a museum piece, rather as something to commend and love.

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