The Manor of the Devil
A bloody great tome, it was; at least, as I remember it. And that memory is possibly faulty, because it was around 1970 and I was only eleven/twelve. I had just started secondary school and had been exploring the library of Queen Margaret Academy in Ayr, Scotland.
And there it was.
The title is lost to me now — something like ‘Silent Film Greats’, perhaps – but my abiding recollection is of the sheer weight and size of it; that, and the mouth-wateringly extensive range of ancient film stills it contained. I had only been interested in movies for a couple of years…and suddenly I was sensing that there was a whole history behind them that I knew nothing of. That the 1930 Dracula didn’t just happen; that the 1931 Frankenstein wasn’t some sort of Immaculate Conception; that — although I obviously didn’t think in those terms — they had antecedents and ancestors.
Yes, even as young as they were, others had come before. Cinema had a history.
Echoes of a Past Age
Here was that famously haunting image from the believed-lost (and later to be miraculously restored) Thomas Edison-produced 1910 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Turn the page and there was the enormous figure of the Golem, towering over the little kid in Paul Wegener’s 1915 film of the same name. Skip forward, eyes like saucers, and there was Elmo Lincoln – admittedly looking more like a big lump of a circus strongman than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero – in Scott Sidney’s 1916 Tarzan of the Apes.
Yeah, maybe I was a weird kid; but even coming from a family of Celtic Football Club supporters this treasure trove was better – oh, better by far – than finding a trunk load of soccer memorabilia. The only drawback was that it was one of those ‘reference only’ books that couldn’t leave the library; but that was OK too, because I spent many wonderful hours during my lunch break in copying out the text. Happy, happy memories.
I’ve never lost my love of silent movies and never miss a chance to see one on a big screen with a live musical accompaniment – something that happens more often than you might think.
And despite my moans about the modern world, one of the positive things about this information-drenched era is that it is now easily possible to see a great many of these surviving echoes of a past age.
Images of Things to Come…
This week I was entranced by a three and a quarter-minute epic from 1896 – and yes, that would have been quite a long running time back then.
Le Manoir du Diable is now generally considered to be both the first horror film and perhaps even the first vampire one; and whilst there are some pedants who might quibble, I’m more than content to go along with that.
It was directed by the great George Méliès (1861 – 1938), possibly best known today for that iconic image of the moon face with a space rocket in its eye from his 1902 A Trip to the Moon. (He was also paid affectionate homage to by Martin Scorsese in his truly marvelous 2011 film Hugo.)
Released in Britain as The Devil’s Castle and in the United States as The Haunted Castle, I’m going to stick with The Manor of the Devil in order to avoid confusion – especially since Méliès himself made a film with the US title just the following year.
As the film begins a large bat flies into the hall of a castle, transforming suddenly into the figure of what we take to be Mephistopheles — a name that, as Angel Heart lovers know, is so hard to pronounce in Brooklyn. And, like any good magician, he wastes no time in conjuring a huge cauldron, a peculiar-looking helper and a beautiful woman.
As everything once more vanishes two cavaliers appear, and there follow brief ‘comic relief’ moments, the like of which would re-emerge some decades later, often to cringe-inducing effect, in the Universal horror films. Here also is an amusing pantomime — complete with what could be modern ‘He’s behind you!’ moments.
One of the cavaliers is approached by the spectres of what seem to be white-clad women; and at first I thought that this might be a small nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula until I remembered that his novel wasn’t published until the following year. And to be honest, it is both charming and irresistible to read into this wonderful short piece of history things that were to come.
For example, when the beautiful lady from the cauldron is introduced to the same cavalier he immediately forgets his surroundings, presenting her with a gallant bow and ‘leg’ before reeling back in shock as she is suddenly transformed into a wizened and bent crone. I just couldn’t help but picture Jack Torrance’s face in The Shining when something similar happens.
In Those Happy Days Before CGI…
There is the appearance of a skeleton, and then the reappearance of the bat and crones, before the film comes to an abrupt close with the remaining cavalier pursuing the Devil from the manor hall with a large cross held high, precursor to a hundred Hammer horror movies.
And that was it. So simple, it seems now; and yet everything is there, really. Big trees from little acorns do indeed grow.
Méliès was a powerfully imaginative man and a look at his life makes fascinating reading. However, for the sake of commenting on how he came to be the inventor of movie special effects I’m going to shamelessly steal from EarlyCinema.com:
“In the autumn of 1896, an event occurred which has since passed into film folklore and changed the way Méliès looked at filmmaking. Whilst filming a simple street scene, Méliès’ camera jammed and it took him a few seconds to rectify the problem. Thinking no more about the incident, Méliès processed the film and was struck by the effect such an incident had on the scene – objects suddenly appeared, disappeared or were transformed into other objects.”
Although a great deal – and even most – of the work of Georges Méliès is probably irretrievably lost to us, we have been fortunate in the past thirty years with having several complete films turn up in forgotten collections. The Manor of the Devil was only found as recently as 1988 in the New Zealand Film Archive, which has been a godsend for the finding of lost films, due to the fact that it was then considered too expensive to return the movies to their source from so far away.
The Manor of the Devil can be viewed on several youtube posts and I’ll leave you to find the one that you prefer. It is a fascinating and precious look through those early lenses; and if you have even the most passing interest in film history you will find it as rewarding as I did.