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1a-c. A trio of short horror curiosities

I'm starting my films of 2015 as I mean to go on - that is with vintage horror, just like in 2014. steepholm's post yesterday about an Edwardian horror film reminded me that some time ago I had bookmarked an even earlier one, and the neatness of starting my year with what is widely considered to be the first horror film ever made appealed to me - especially since I knew I would be able to progress onwards to the Edwardian one afterwards. Thus my evening began.

1a. Le Manoir du Diable (1896), dir. Georges Méliès

The history of film begins, as we all know, in Leeds, with 1888's challenging and poignant Roundhay Garden Scene. Given that people had already been using all manner of special-effects technology (still cameras, lights, distorting lenses, paper cut-outs etc.) to create otherworldly vignettes for years, and that the Victorian fascination with the Gothic was at its greatest height yet, it is no surprise that within eight years, somebody had put the new technique to work in creating the world's first horror film. Nonetheless, we shouldn't let that inevitability distract us from how amazing it is that we can actually see this film, just over 118 years later. (I say 'just over', because it was originally released on Christmas Eve 1896, placing it in the fine and time-honoured tradition of Ghost Stories at Christmas.) To be clear about exactly how early we are talking, this film was released the year before Bram Stoker's Dracula was published. You may read more about it at Wikipedia, and indeed watch it for yourself right here.

It isn't exactly horror in the sense of 'intended to scare', of course, as the Wikipedia page rightly says, but then again neither are lots of films, books and plays which end up being placed in the 'horror' category. Like most category descriptors, the 'horror' genre falls down pretty quickly on close analysis, but we still stick with it anyway because it is simple and widely understood - so I'm not going to fret too much about all that. This certainly is the first film with fantastical, diabolical, supernatural, Gothic goings-on - and that's good enough for me. Indeed, it features a quasi-vampiric protagonist, who is presumably the diable of the title, but notably transforms from a bat into a human-like creature at the beginning of the story, and is defeated by a crucifix at the end (sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone ;-) ), which is very exciting.

Everything seems very simple to 21st-century eyes, of course, and yet at the same time it is surprising how much of what film can do has already been recognised and pressed into use only 8 years after its invention. We are basically looking at a theatrical vignette, filmed with a single static camera, but stepping beyond the constraints of live theatre by using the camera's ability to compress and edit time via cuts, so that people and objects can be made to appear and disappear. We also have special effects props hanging from wires (the bat), people appearing in puffs of smoke, and 2D mattes (the cauldron). As yet, though, there are no intertitles (which were invented in 1903, apparently), so the story has to be simple enough to follow without them. And of course Gothic melodrama lends itself well to that situation, since a basic battle of good vs. evil doesn't need to rely on deeply-felt personal emotions of the sort which need articulating via words or close-ups.

In short, a fascinating glimpse into both the early history of film and the evolution of Gothic horror - and since it's only three minutes long, you can be pretty certain that it will reward that small investment of your time.

1b. The Mistletoe Bough (1904), dir. Percy Stow

This is the film which steepholm posted about. It is a telling of a widely-known ghost story called The Mistletoe Bough, which you can read about here, and was most popularly known at the time when this film was made through a song by Thomas Haynes Bayley published in 1884, which the film seems to follow fairly closely. You can watch it for free on the BFI website, and it is only 5 minutes long - so again, well worth the investment.

We are only eight years beyond the previous film here, but the technological leaps forward are striking (as, of course, they also are between Roundhay Garden Scene and Le Manoir du Diable over the same time-period). Everything is still very theatrical, as cinema would continue to be well into the 1930s (and television the 1960s), right down to being able to see the shadow of the 'stage-front' on the back wall in the opening ball-room scene. But where Le Manoir du Diable had one location, this one has six (ball-room, house exterior, steps to the tower, tower interior, generic black background to seeking scene and house drive-way), and in one of them the camera-person even uses a panning shot to follow the bride as she comes out of the house and looks for a place to hide. Since this film is telling a known story, it is able to convey a slightly more complex narrative than Le Manoir du Diable, but technological innovation helps here too in the form of the newly-invented intertitle; one is employed to signal that thirty years have passed between the mysterious disappearance of the bride and the discovery of her terrible fate.

Even more strikingly, we have the appearance of a new special effect. While Le Manoir du Diable used cuts to signify appearances and disappearances, The Mistletoe Bough gives us the ghost (or a dream?) of the bride, slowly fading in the arms of her husband when he tries to embrace her. This really was interesting, because I have more than once heard it said that the scene of Count Orlok fading in the sun at the end of Nosferatu (1922) is the first use of such an effect in a horror film - which I now know is definitely not the case. I suppose it goes to show the folly of declaring anything the 'first' whatever in cinematic history, given how much of its early output is now lost or little-known. The actual mouldering corpse of the bride, as discovered thirty years later by her husband, is kept off-screen though - we only see his and another man's (the butler? a friend?) horrified reactions as they look into the chest. My guess is that this was done out of concern for what could and couldn't be shown on screen, rather than limited props / effects resources, since a skeleton in some rags isn't too hard to do. But either way it felt like a precursor of the later grand horror tradition of keeping shonky special-effects 'monsters' off-screen as much as possible.

As for the story itself, it is intended as genuinely tragic / horrific this time, and did indeed give me a horrified thrill as the bride met her fate, and again as her husband realised what had happened to her. The theatricality still gives it a strong melodramatic edge, though, which reduces the sense of realism, and the scenes of the wedding party utterly failing to find the bride in spite of there being only one very obvious place where she could possibly have ended up are more comical than I suspect they were meant to be. Meanwhile, the titular mistletoe bough itself doesn't actually seem to play any part in the plot - it is simply there to signify a winter / Christmas setting for the story, apparently matched by the real-world season when the film was made, to judge by the bare branches on the trees and what might be remnants of snow on the ground (or could just be unevenly-worn gravel on the drive). As such, then, this too fits neatly into the Ghost Stories at Christmas tradition, making this a good time of year to have discovered it.

1c. Cross-roads (1955), dir. John Fitchen

Finally, having arrived at the BFI website to see The Mistletoe Bough, I couldn't help but notice that one of the other features offered on the same page was this 20-minute ghost film starring Christopher Lee. This is exactly the sort of early / small-scale work from his filmography which it's generally very hard to get hold of, and I certainly hadn't seen it before. So I snapped up the opportunity to watch it, urged on by the information that it was one of his first forays into Gothic territory, and features what would soon become his signature screen trick of a portentous close-up into his narrowed, piercing eyes. You too may have the pleasure here, though I'm afraid this time you will have to pay one English pound for the privilege.

It's worth it, though - at least if you are a Lee fan, anyway. Because he is the ghost at the centre of the story, and because his purpose is to wreak horrible revenge on the man whom he considers responsible for his sister's death, there really is a great deal here which he would draw on again in his role as Dracula three years later - icy charm, supreme self-assurance, a menacing physical presence, a sudden switch from congenial politeness to cold anger, and of course those piercing eyes. Those are all in his performance, and could equally well occur in a story about an ordinary human being bent on revenge - but it does help, too, that the story imbues him with both supernatural powers (able to cut off a telephone line, prevent an unlocked door from opening and be unaffected by bullets) and limitations (he has only until the same hour as his untimely death to wreak his revenge). All very satisfactory indeed.

Cinematically, we're obviously in an utterly different world with this film from the two above, so I won't try to draw strained comparisons with them. But this one stands as an interesting insight into the nature of the film industry in its own time, all the same. I'm not quite sure what it was originally produced for, as neither my best Christopher Lee book nor the internet is providing any answer to that question, but I do know it came out of a low-budget operation called Bushey Studios, and my guess is that it was a B-feature short to be shown at cinemas before a main movie. The editing is abysmal, with multiple cuts between different camera-angles that don't follow fluently from what was happening before, most of the acting (including Christopher Lee's) is pretty mannered, and some of the dialogue is cringe-inducingly banal. I don't think audiences were willing to accept editing of this quality in particular for much longer, though it's not the only similar example from around this time I have seen (and I suspect the others may have had Christopher Lee in them as well). But the lighting is nice, and there's quite a pacey car-chase scene through central London at the end, too, which is not to be sniffed at.

All in all, a very enjoyable little adventurette through early horror film history, and certainly a great start to a new filmic year which I hope will continue in much the same vein.

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