The Haunted Curiosity Shop 1901

Director: Walter R. Booth

An outlandish short in which an unfortunate antique dealer is plagued by a shopful of paranormal apparitions... a predicament I can fully sympathise with, being the Caretaker of a somewhat high-maintenance country manor myself. Oh, the perils of property management!

An antique dealer is beset by a succession of supernatural apparitions. A floating skull turns into the head and torso of a lady, whose bottom half joins her from elsewhere in the shop. The reconstituted lady first transforms into an ape-like negro and then a ghost. An Egyptian mummy appears from a cabinet, followed by a medieval knight. The antiquarian pulls off the knight's limbs and hurls them into an ancient urn, from which emerge three dancing elves.

The producer of The Haunted Curiosity Shop, Robert W. Paul, is acknowledged today as a major figure in early film production. His involvement in moving pictures began when he was commissioned by a pair of Greek businessmen to produce a copy of Thomas Edison's motion picture camera, the Kinetogram, which had no European patent at the time. Paul successfully constructed his own version, and later was also granted a patent for a cine-projector, the Theatrograph. He was responsible for the first films to be shot and screened in Britain in February 1895, and was exhibiting them publicly at the same time the Lumière brothers were in London promoting their own invention.

Paul produced scores of documentary subjects over the next decade (including his famous film of the 1896 Royal Derby), along with a series of 'trick' films, such as A Railway Collision
(1899), which re-created a train crash using miniatures, Undressing Extraordinary (1901), and the bizarre An Over-Incubated Baby (also 1901). Many of the latter were devised by his colleague, the former painter and stage magician Walter R. Booth.

Booth, who later produced Britain's first animated film The Hand Of The Artist  (1906), possessed an extensive repertoire of technical wizardry by the time his Curiosity Shop opened its doors. By all accounts, the studio he used around this time was modelled closely on that of fellow magician Georges Méliès, whose influence can be detected in Booth's own ambitious creations. Accordingly, there is an awful lot going on in Curiosity Shop, and the BFI's biography of Booth suggests that it was produced 'purely as a showcase for Booth and Paul's bag of tricks'.

Sadly, the film's final trick, a huge living head (maybe Walter Booth's own) that advances towards the audience until it fills the screen, has fallen victim to time and decay. All that is left in existing prints is a frame or two of a face hovering above the smoking urn. But of course, most of the remaining motifs - skeletons, ghosts, mummies, physical transformations -  would become commonplace before very long, and have been an integral part of the horror genre ever since. 

Cast and Credits:
Cast Unknown.
Producer: R.W. Paul, PhotographyWalter Booth
Paul's Animatograph Works, GB
Running time 2 mins.

R.W. Paul - The Collected Films 1895 - 1908 (BFI Video)

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