The Devil’s Castle (1896) is a short movie by modern standards – a very short movie. Being only about 3 minutes long, it barely qualifies for the title of a “movie” perse’, but if you consider that in its day other movies were about half that length, it was something of an innovative piece that set the pace for the future.
This movie is the only known flick dating from the 19th century to feature a vampire, is considered to be the first horror movie, and is also arguably the first vampire movie. It has the distinction of being listed on the SA Vampyre Culture Center‘s website as the only known vampire-related film of the 19th century. The Devil’s Castle (aka Le manoir du diable) has been known by a variety of alternate names including The Devil’s Manor, The Manor of the Devil, The House of the Devil, and The Haunted Castle. The latter is often incorrectly attributed to this film, but “The Haunted Castle” is actually the name of a different movie by Méliès, filmed 1 year later, and viewable here.
The plot of the story is quite basic: In an ancient castle a bat transforms into Mephistopheles. Magically producing a cauldron, Mephistopheles conjures up a young girl and various supernatural creatures, including a fake skeleton and quaint ghosts (men wearing white sheets). These together terrorize visiting cavaliers, one of which brandishes a crucifix in an effort to force the devil-vampire to vanish.
This film being so short, there really isn’t too much to be said about it. It’s black and white and silent. There is no dialog, and there isn’t even the convenience of reading subtitles. At the time, going to the movies would mean you would sit and watch a batch of short films in a dark, noisy smoke-filled room, played by a man cranking the projector by hand, with a pianist playing some music in the background. Sometimes the music would even be appropriate for the different scenes. Entry would cost you around 1 cent. Long movies did not exist yet, and in general films were regarded as something of a curiosity, a fad that would probably pass before long, leaving things to return to how they were before. In the wild west, real cowboys not used to the concept of illusion would get up and shoot at images on the screen. Film actors were looked down upon as unprofessional hacks who would never make it on stage as “real” actors, or in Vaudeville, the entertainment for the common people.
According to Wikipedia, this film “was presumed lost until 1988, when a copy was found in the New Zealand Film Archive. The Haunted Castle was released on February 16, 2010 as part of a DVD box set called “Georges Melies: Encore” by Flicker Alley.”
Movies of the time were seldom preserved, and very few have survived in a state where they can be viewed or archived. After all, those who made them had no inkling that the fledgling studios would grow into a huge industry, or that anyone would even want to watch them in the distant future. They were short-life products intended to generate income, that would be replaced by newer products – if interest in the phenomenon of moving pictures didn’t wane. It didn’t.
Watching a movie of this great age, I am acutely aware that everyone associated with it, from the actors, director and camera-operator to the editor and its first audiences – are all long dead and probably turned to dust. After all, this film is 117 years old now. There is something emotive and strangely significant about that.
Cinematography was a new and developing art, and as you can see in this movie, trick photography plays a major part. Quite clever use of stopping the camera and removing or placing items on the set, and then restarting filming results in “supernatural” events in the film, of things vanishing and appearing, with everything running in a fast, smooth, continuous flow of events indicating good choreography, use of props and use of time. This movie is almost pure stage performance captured on film. The big flapping rubber bat is priceless. This film isn’t frightening, and even when it was made it was never meant to be. Its purpose was to entertain and amuse.
It’s a short movie, it’s crude and primitive – even neolithic by modern standards, but I can’t help admiring the pioneering work done here, and can feel the awe and amazement the first audiences who watched it must have felt so long ago.
It’s definitely worth watching, even if only once for the experience – and hey, it’s only 3 minutes after all.