The History of Violence #1: The Devil’s Castle (1896)

It is with great pleasure that I kick off a new series from all contributing editors here at Film’s Okay: The History of Violence: A Compendium of Horror.

Influential. Groundbreaking. Magical. Shocking. Inventive. All of these words can describe the films of George Melies. If you are unfamiliar with this man’s genius and imagination, I highly recommend you take a look for yourself. It won’t take you long, nearly all of his films are less than 10 minutes in length, including this one. The embedded link above is the entire film, though someone saw it fit to add that soundtrack. Melies made films during the birth of cinema from the late 1800s to the 1910s before the Great War, and was more than partially responsible for the medium of moving pictures going from sheer novelty to true art form. His most famous work, A Trip to the Moon, has been paid homage to countless times and even remade into a music video by Smashing Pumpkins.

Melies’s work spanned multiple genres and 100s of films, but today I’m focusing on his contribution to horror. Touted as the very first horror film by many, though who really knows what was made that didn’t survive from that era, The Devil’s Castle (or House of The Devil depending on the translation) is definitely the earliest horror film I’ve seen. Melies stars in the film himself as The Devil who thinks it fun to torment a couple of people who have wandered into his abode. Mephistopheles moves chairs around and makes things appear and disappear, bewildering and frightening his guests.

I’ve read from numerous sources that indicate the intent of this film was merely to amuse, not to frighten. I can see that in some places where chairs are made to disappear when someone is looking to sit down or someone being poked in the butt with a pitchfork. The reason this film deserves its place in horror history is its vampire element. This is the first example I can find in a film of a bat transforming into a man. Melies uses his slight-of-hand technique of stop-motion to create the illusion of this transformation. This film is over 100 years old and the vampire transformation still looks better than most that were made in the 40s and 50s using smoke and cut aways.

George Meiles turned individual frames of film into miniature canvases. There was no possible way he could fathom the inspiration he would give the world as he created these moving images. Pieces of his influence can be seen in almost every movie that comes out today. Vampires remain a tried and true part of horror films, its unfortunate that romance novelists have ditched Fabio for vampires and tainted the genre. Instead of viciously killing people by drinking their blood, vampires now sparkle in the sun and it thunders when they count things. How far we have come.

-Wes Kelly

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