The Devil's Manor (Le Manoir Du Diable) 1896

Director: Georges Méliès

A treasure unearthed from the deepest and darkest corner of the Manor's vaults... At the very dawn of cinema history, Georges Méliès, the 'Wizard of Montreuil', presents a simple tale of a nobleman who outwits a scheming Devil and his servants. The horror film is born!

In the manor of the title, a huge bat transforms into the figure of Mephistopheles, who conjures up an attractive courtesan from a smoking cauldron. A nobleman (Méliès) and his page enter the manor. The page is scared off by a pitchfork-wielding imp, leaving the nobleman to confront first a skeleton, then a group of menacing ghosts. The Devil presents the courtesan to the nobleman, but she changes into a haggard old witch before his eyes. More witches appear, and just as quickly vanish into thin air. Finally, the nobleman snatches a huge cross from the mansion's wall and advances on Mephisto, who disappears in a puff of smoke.

"It really is most unfair to throw remarks at us like, 'the early cinéastes were primitive' ...I reject the adjective 'primitive', since everywhere the material and techniques we created are still being used. We guided cinema on the dramatic and artistic path."

Today Georges Méliès occupies an undisputed position as the father of fantasy film and the first great artist of cinema. Le Manoir Du Diable was among the earliest of his groundbreaking "trick" films, and is generally regarded nowadays as the first ever 'horror' movie.

Méliès had been producing stage magic at the renowned Théatre Robert-Houdin in Paris since 1888. His interest in moving pictures had been sparked by the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers' 'Cinématographe' at the Grand Café in December 1895, where he immediately saw its potential as a progression from the Phantasmagoric magic lantern shows that had entertained his theatre audiences for years. The Lumières refused to sell him their device, regarding it solely as a scientific apparatus. Undeterred, Méliès acquired a projector from English film pioneer Robert Paul, and with the aid of engineer Lucien Reulos, converted it into a camera which they later patented as the 'Kinétographe Robert-Houdin'.

According to Méliès, the breakthrough came the following year. His camera (nicknamed 'the coffee grinder' on account of the rattling noise it made) had jammed while filming a street scene at the Place de l'Opera, and the break had an unexpected effect: "It took me a full minute to release the film and start the camera again. During this minute, passers-by, buses and automobiles had moved. On projecting the spliced film, I suddenly saw a carriage turn into a hearse - and men become women..."

This discovery led Méliès to abandon the dry documentary subjects he and his contemporaries were then producing in favour of special-effects marvels that translated his theatrical wizardry to film. A first tentative wave of the magic wand was Escamotage D'une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin (Conjuring a Lady at the Robert-Houdin, 1896). It replicated his 'Vanishing Lady' stage illusion, with the added twist of having the lady turn into a skeleton. Méliès achieved this effect simply by stopping the camera and placing a skeleton in the vanished Lady's empty chair.

Playbill for the Robert-Houdin, 1896
Le Manoir Du Diable soon followed, first screened at the Théatre Robert-Houdin on Christmas Eve 1896. Like all Méliès' earliest films, it was presented as part of the regular programme of magic acts. The bill posters described them as 'Vues Animées', adding proudly, 'Les Plus Originales De Toutes!'. Manoir is rooted firmly in the aesthetics of the theatre. The action takes place in a single shot before a motionless camera, with the performers moving around the painted scenery much as they would on stage. Despite appearances to the contrary, it was actually shot outdoors: the set was constructed a year or so before Méliès built his permanent studio facility at Montreuil.

Later, as cinema began to develop its own language, critics would later point to this static tableaux-vivante style as evidence of Méliès' unwillingness to develop artistically. Yet Manoir features an often complex succession of jump cuts, substitutions and double exposures to achieve its effects, for which a fixed camera position was essential. Méliès was testing the boundaries of the available technology, and manages to squeeze an impressive amount of trickery into the film's three-minute running time.

Le Manoir Du Diable might seem crude to modern eyes, but even so it includes many generic elements of what would later become the Horror Film - ghosts, animated skeletons, witches and a scheming Devil - and as such deserves recognition as the first of its kind. It also strongly suggests that Méliès was already leaps and bounds ahead of his cinematic peers in recognising what wonders the new medium might be capable of...

Cast and Credits:
Georges Méliès (Nobleman), Jehanne D'Alcy (Witch)
Producer/Cinematographer/Designer: George Méliès
Star Films, France.
Running Time 3 mins approx

Now available in full on "Georges Melies: Encore" (Flicker Alley)  

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