Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne D'Alcy
After a number of advancements from men like Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne Jules Marey, Emile Reynaud, and W.K.I. Dickson (though Thomas Edison took most of the credit), the French Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, successfully made the first motion picture camera. Their device, the Cinématographe, was both a camera and a projector, which was loosely modeled on a sewing machine and used flexible, 35mm wide strips of film that recorded images at sixteen frames per second, setting an early industry standard. It was one of the first cameras to project, unlike Dickson and Edison’s kaleidoscope-like device. On December 28, 1895, the Lumières screened a number of short films for a paying audience and with that, the cinema was born.
One year and several innovations later, another Frenchman, Georges Méliès, began making his own films. Méliès got his start as an illusionist and toy maker and is considered the first person to use cinematic special effects, such as time lapse, multiple exposures, etc. Voyage to the Moon (1902) is his most famous work, a fourteen minute science fiction film about a journey to the moon in a rocket that uses a variety of innovative effects. Here Méliès first used color by hand-painting and tinting the film. By 1898, he was one of the largest film producers in France.
In 1896 he produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the first horror film, Le Manoir du diable, which is one of the first cinematic depictions of Satan. This three-minute silent, black and white short was initially conceived as a pantomime, meant to amuse rather than scare. In English it is known as The House of the Devil, The Devil’s Manor, or The Devil’s Caste. A bat flies into an abandoned castle, transforms into the Devil, and begins casting spells over a large cauldron. He produces witches, ghosts, and skeletons. One of them holds up a crucifix and he vanishes in a puff of smoke.
This beautiful film is a worthy experiment in early horror cinema and was a major influence on the forthcoming genre. Many of the stop-camera and lighting effects influenced the work done in German expressionism a few decades later. It’s a little silly that the Devil gets chased away by one of his own minions, but this was intended to be farcical and as the rest of cinema has shown us, he’ll be back many times again. This short, like many of Méliès’ other works, is available online and is in the public domain in places like YouTube.com or Archive.org. If you want Méliès on DVD, there are a lot of good collections. I would start with the Kino release The Magic of Méliès or Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 - 1913).
Satan was a popular subject for Méliès. He appeared as Satan again in The Devil and the Statue (1901), where the Devil grows to an enormous size, but is defeated by the Virgin Mary. He also created Faust in Hell (1903), loosely based on the opera by Hector Berlioz, and a sequel, Faust and Marguerite (1904), based on a similarly themed opera by Charles Gounod. In 906 he made The Merry Deeds of Satan aka The 400 Tricks of the Devil, about two travelers beset by Satan and roasted alive in Hell. Méliès plays the Devil once again in the confusing short The Haunted Window (1910). In addition to numerous fantasy and science fiction films - he produced over 500 films total - Méliès made a number of other horror films, such as The Astronomer’s Dream, about an astronomer who is visited by demons and angels, and The Cave of Demons, about ghosts haunting a cave, The Nightmare, The Monster, The Vanishing Woman, and many more.
Watch Le Manoir du diable here: