Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): Georges Méliès

The birth of the motion picture dates back to 1878, when English professor Eadweard J. Muybridge used a network of 24 still photo cameras to capture the gallop of a horse. All 24 images were then strung together and projected onto a screen to give the illusion of movement. This short film, now known as The Horse in Motion is shockingly short, almost too brief to appreciate, but shown in a loop (as in the case below), one can understand how this concept captured the minds of millions.

The first horrifying film was actually one of the earliest to be screened to a mass audience.  In December of 1895, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, premiered their short film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) to an eager audience.  Legend has it that the sight of the train barreling toward the viewer caused a bit of a panic, and some were even said to have passed out in their seats.  There are many people out there who refute this claim, thinking it just a publicity ruse (similar in vein to the tagline for Wes Craven's infamous Last House on the Left:  "To avoid fainting, keep repeating:  It's only a movie...It's only a movie..."), but I prefer to believe the myth.

Similarly, the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery shocked its audience by having a close-up of the bandit pointing a pistol at the viewers.  While it may be difficult to believe that such stunts could have then been considered shocking and frightening, one must remember that the film medium was still a new and burgeoning artform.  People as a whole were not used to seeing these scenes played out before them in such a manner, and to the untrained eye this must have appeared to be as much witchcraft as science.  The modern viewer has become too jaded to be so easily horrified.

But there are a lot of things that are horrifying that can not be classified as horror. The evening news, for instance. So where do we go to find the first horror film? Not too far, it turns out.

Georges Méliès--who was in the audience the night that the Lumière brothers debuted their impressive film--is sometimes credited with being the grandfather of the horror film. If nothing else, he is at least the grandfather of the Special Effect, which is the lifeblood of the horror film.  Until he came along, the medium was used primarily to capture moments of real life, mini-documentaries of a sort, such as the aforementioned train arrival, or factory workers heading home for the day.  Méliès is responsible for bringing imagination to the forefront of the motion picture. 

Méliès is probably best known for his 1902 film Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), which received a brief burst of popularity when the Smashing Pumpkins used it as the inspiration for their music video "Tonight, Tonight".  This is tentatively a science fiction film, although perhaps more of a fantasy film, but in all reality the majority of Méliès' works are less stories than they are showcases for his innovative camera work and trick shots. (Click here to watch)

A magician himself, many of Méliès' movies highlighted stage magicians in ways never seen before, as in the 1899 short L'Impressionniste Fin de Siecle (An Up-To-Date Conjuror) shown below.

Many of his works, regardless of their purpose, did utilize some horrific imagery.

1896's Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil) has elements of vampirism, with Mephistopheles showcasing his ability to transform from a bat into human form, and being staved off with a crucifix.

1903's Le Monstre (The Monster) has an Egyptian king asking a holy man to resurrect the skeletal remains of his dead wife.  The holy man obliges, and she returns--briefly--as a ghostly dancing figure.  (Click here to watch)

1904's Le Roi du Maquillage (The Untamable Moustache) showcases a sketch artist with the uncanny ability to transform himself into whatever it is that he draws on his board.  Among the characters he becomes is a creepy clown, and the devil himself. (Click here to watch)

1905's Le Diable Noir (The Black Imp or The Black Devil) featured a mischievous demon haunting the room in which a weary traveler has rented for the night.  A series of practical jokes performed on the traveler by the imp leads into a battle of the wits and comes off more as slapstick than anything else.  (click here to watch)

1906's Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable (The Merry Frolics of Satan) was a hand-tinted film that followed a pair of travelers on a carriage ride lead by a skeletal horse.  The trip initially takes them barelling through the heavens, but in the end, one of them plummets to hell. (Click here to watch)

As Méliès was the director of more than 550 films, the list goes on and on.  Those interested in seeing more should do a Google Video Search for his name and settle in for a long night.



  1. Awesome essay, Jonny! Melies is definitely an interesting character and his films constantly amuse me, no matter how dated they may seem to others. Even though the special effects are practical and almost simplistic, I can't help but feel that there really is a genuine magic to them, no doubt inspired by his fantastic personality. Thanks for the trip down the halls of horror history.

  2. Excellent collection here, I havent seen any of these so this has been a great jump into early cinema for me!

  3. Meredith, Joe, Carl: Thanks for reading, and for the positive feedback. This is one of my favorite pet projects (which is still a long, long way from anything resembling complete), so I'm glad that my fellow horror bloggers are enjoying it.


  4. Hi The melies film is available with a new sound track by Air on CD and DVD. Melies is the major inspiration/catalyst in the award nominated film by Scorcese "Hugo" if nobody has told you yet.


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