Le Manoir du Diable (1896)

27 09 2011

Le Manoir du Diable (1896)
Directed by Georges Méliès
Rating: 5/10

A three-minute-long silent film in black and white, Le Manoir du Diable is considered the first horror film.

For the history buffs who might be reading this article, Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Manor) is considered the first horror film ever produced. The debut of director Georges Méliès, it premiered in 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin on Christmas Eve. The film features Mephistopheles: an agent of Satan who fulfills the contract between Lucifer and Faust in the famous, eponymous Gothic legend. In the beginning of the film, Mephistopheles flies into a castle in the form of a bat. After transforming into the likeness of a man, he promptly begins to formulate an evil scheme. Two cavaliers enter. A goblin causes mischief. One of the cavaliers dashes into the hallway to escape but his friend grabs him by the arm and drags him back onto stage and scolds him for being a coward. In the next half a minute or so you realize that the first horror movie is a B-movie. Pantomime ensues. In the end, the brave cavalier vanquishes Mephistopheles with a crucifix.

As the first of it’s kind, LMDD offers some insight as to the origin of modern horror cinema. For example, the action takes place in a castle–a setting that represents a shifting view of horror. Between the 12th and 15th Centuries, castles functioned primarily for defense. In fragmented territories, nobles and lords would spend a great deal of money to construct castles on sites that promised a defensive advantage, and apart from a thick stone encasing, castles often featured moats, arrow towers, hidden passageways, and cannonade; anything to stop a siege. It wasn’t until the advent of gun powder in the 15th Century, along with a change in the political nature of battle, that these imposing defensive structures became obsolete. In the 16th Century and beyond, castles typically became ruins or relics–prisons or palaces inhabited by their owners. The new age of warfare still took advantage of castles, but offensive weapons became the focus of open combat; where it would otherwise have been expensive to construct a large base equipped to entertain a noble lord and his entourage.

Several hundred years later during the Gothic Revival of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, a resurgence in Medievalism inspired new interest in castles. To put the times in context, the Industrial Revolution began in the mid 19th Century. The early years of machine production and factory life convinced many that modern times were morally inferior to pre-industrial society; a golden age where gothic styles and heroism were inspired by Christian values and classicism. Naturally, these antiquarian sympathies had a great impact on architecture and society. The castle became an icon of picturesque medieval society and aristocrats began to construct castles to emulate their rediscovered standards of dramatic luxury. In lieu of a castle, the styles of the time often incorporated false ruins into the landscape. Anything was acceptable as long as it paid homage to the glorious past.

In the year 1896, the castle brimmed with cinematographic significance. Not only is the castle the perfect environment for horror elements to manifest, but it’s a fitting battleground for a confrontation between the cavaliers and Mephistopheles. Symbolically, their confrontation is much more than the conquest of good over evil. It represents the impact of monumental changes in technology on Western civilization, and the supremacy of Christian values against impending revolution. It also reduces the magnitude of its own symbolic importance as the first horror film to a comical satire–revealing its self-awareness and both reveling in and ridiculing the genre conventions. Modern filmmakers have made this self-conscious ambition almost banal, but they owe something important to their short, French predecessor. From a modern perspective, LMDD performed an innovative translation of contemporary ideas in horror and romance into a new storytelling medium. In this respect, it is a noble precursor to modern film and an archetype of horror cinema.

Le Manoir du Diable

GDL – 9.27.2011



2 responses

9 07 2012
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12 07 2012

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