A bat flies into an ancient castle and transforms itself into Mephistopheles himself. Producing a cauldron, Mephistopheles conjures up a young girl and various supernatural creatures, one of which brandishes a crucifix in an effort to force the devil-vampire to vanish.Written by
Doug Sederberg <email@example.com>
There are dozens of ways that this three minute movie is amazing for the day. "Le Manoir du Diable" is one of filmmaker Georges Melies's earliest trick movies. Originally, his output until then mostly consisted of your typical Lumiere subjects: trains arriving in stations, women washing clothing, blacksmiths at work, etc. But, having discovered special effects earlier the same year, he began experimenting with them, reproducing a stage magician's act with "The Vanishing Lady" and going even further to turn out "The House of the Devil".
I have many things to say about this film. I'll begin with the 'first vampire movie' thing. Yes, there is indeed a bat included--but it is actually Mephistopheles, an incarnation of the devil, which it turns into. Only looking at movies today about vampires do we look back at this and misinterpret it. It's just like some people are saying that the eclipse in Melies's "The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and the Moon" features a 'gay' eclipse and that Melies was encouraging homosexuality or whatever. It's not true. I cannot believe how stupid people can be nowadays.
Is it a horror film? With that I am inclined to agree. According to Wikipedia, "The House of the Devil" was originally meant to amuse rather than scare. The thing is, it looks so much like a horror. The ghosts that appear actually DO look a little creepy. And there's the bat turning into Mephistopheles. It may not have originally meant to have been a horror, but one cannot deny that the whole theme makes it so from start to finish.
As for the rumor going around that Melies played Mephistopheles, I have something to say about that too. Wikipedia's article makes no mention of Melies having ever appeared in this short at all; however, according to my own beliefs, he played the cavalier character who is the victim of Mephistopheles's traps. Melies's acting always has a certain joyful charm whenever he is in front of a movie camera, whether he's playing a frightened inn guest, a magician or the devil. The devil here doesn't really feel like Melies at all, but instead comes across as sinister and lurking. On the other hand, the cavalier not only looks like Melies, he comes off as very lively, amusing and every bit as childish as you'd expect from Melies's acting. The actor for Mephistopheles's role still remains uncertain, though Georges Sadoul, a film historian, believes him to have been played by Jules-Eugene Legris, a performer at Melies's Theatre Robert-Houdin.
Now that we've cleared that up, we can get on to see just how amazing this movie is for the time. As I said before, Melies's earliest films were exactly like other films of the day--documentaries of ordinary life with no attempt to tell a story of any sort. There was sometimes acting but not any sets at all--and NO special effects. Looking at this now, it seems silly. Just a bunch of guys appearing and disappearing in a castle. But back all the way in 1896, it was amazing. Audiences had no idea how anyone could film stuff like this--they were spell-bound. Not only does "The House of the Devil" contain special effects, it has a really (and this is sincere) cool looking set which sets the scene for the interior of the castle. In fact, it's a few sets really. Behind the main set, there is another doorway guarded by a cardboard knight (which was later reused in Melies's films "A Nightmare" and "The Haunted Castle", I believe). Behind that is another painted backdrop which is supposed to look like other doorways, later replaced by a balcony set so the second cavalier can jump off. (A little odd, that change of sets, but Melies hadn't yet invented multi-scene narratives). The cauldron also looks cool for just a piece of flat painted cardboard.
There's the costumes too. They look totally awesome. The ghosts' masks are really cool and still a little spooky. The outfits for the cavaliers look great and not a bit hand-made at all. It is all extremely lavish and every bit as convincing as though you were there. Besides that, there's also some good special effects work. The dwarf appearing in puffs of smoke effect looks very convincing, while both transformations from bat to devil are actually surprisingly well done. While all Melies used was just a simple splice to do all the effects, I think it actually looks better than could be hoped for.
The whole thing was filmed out in Melies's garden in Montreuil, but watching it you wouldn't really know it since the sets are so convincing looking (at least to me). While it may be a bit padded, that is actually a good thing since a three minute movie from 1896 was very rare. And while the story is simplistic, it is still impressive since you hardly ever saw films with plots at all at this point in filmmaking. This is truly amazing for the time and proof that Melies was one h--l of a guy.
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