Film History Essentials: Le Manoir du Diable (1896)

(English: The House of the Devil)

What it’s about:

A large bat flies into a castle and transforms into Mephistopheles. He performs several conjurations, but then hears someone coming and vanishes. Two cavaliers enter, and immediately strange things begin happening. One flees in terror, but the other stays and confronts Mephistopheles when he appears. Mephistopheles summons forth many terrors to torment the brave cavalier. The cowardly cavalier returns as a group of witches menace his friend. The witches give chase to the cowardly cavalier and he throws himself to his likely death from the balcony. As Mephistopheles himself advances on the brave cavalier, he snatches up a large cross that he sees hanging behind him, and Mephistopheles cowers in terror before him.

Why it’s essential:

On December 2, 1896, Georges Méliès officially created the Star Film Company as a producer of motion pictures. Le Manoir du Diable, which debuted on Christmas Eve as part of his show at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, was likely one of the first films created under the “Star Film” label. Notice the white star shape attached to the bottom of a wall near the center of the frame. It became commonplace throughout this period for studios to place a logo somewhere clearly visible in their films as an anti-piracy measure.

This is the earliest surviving film by Méliès that is truly characteristic of the style for which he is best-known. It is a narrative fiction film, full of magical elements that are executed by means of special effects and camera tricks, deployed frenetically but also playfully, all brought to life using sets, costumes, and props that are noticeably stagey. In particular, it’s clear in this film that the “castle” is a thin, painted backdrop (it was actually set up in Méliès’s garden as he had not yet built a studio). You may notice, at about 2:58, the hero backs into the wall and nearly knocks it over!

The identities of much of the cast are unknown, but the woman who emerges from the cauldron is Méliès’s frequent collaborator Jeanne d’Alcy, and Mephistopheles may be played by another magician who performed at Méliès’s theater. Méliès himself is frequently listed as Mephistopheles, but it’s hard to miss his distinctive performance style (and goatee) in the heroic cavalier. In the just over three minutes of the film’s runtime, Méliès uses the stop trick to edit objects and people in and out of the scene over two dozen times, or an average of once every eight seconds. But in contrast with the stage magic of his previous known use of the technique, these are done in support of an actual story, and three minutes is actually quite long for a film from this time.

On the surface, the components of the story bear many of the hallmarks of the horror genre, and this is often (and probably correctly) cited as the earliest example of a horror film. However, it is unlikely that it ever frightened any audiences, and may not have even been intended to, as the tone is decidedly comedic in spots. The only really dark moment is when a character appears to leap to his death. Despite that overreaction, no one ever seems to be in real peril from the castle’s menacing inhabitants. Many viewers have also pointed to characteristics that Mephistopheles seems to share with vampires, suggesting that this could also be considered the first vampire film. It’s worth noting that some of the cited characteristics were not specifically part of vampire lore prior to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was not published until several months later.

In over 15 years of making films, Georges Méliès made over 500 films. Unfortunately, only around 200 of them have survived, that we know of. During World War I, the French army took possession of many of his original prints and had them melted down as war materiel, using the celluloid to make boot heels for soldiers. In the early 1920s, Méliès, bankrupt and embittered, lost control of his film studio, and (much like Reynaud after his Théâtre Optique show closed) his reaction was to burn all of his film negatives, and many of his sets and costumes. It was an incredible loss.

Thanks to his earlier success, however, many copies of his work survived, and films long believed gone continue to be found unexpectedly around the world. Le Manoir du Diable was among the films thought to have been lost for several decades, until it was discovered in New Zealand in the mid-1980s, having been sold at a junk shop some 40 years before. As a result, though, many of Méliès’s films are not in the great condition of more carefully-preserved films like, for instance, those of the Lumière brothers. Still, we are incredibly fortunate to have access to so many of them today, including this one, and we can continue to hope that even more will be found.

Why you should see it:

Not only were there still very few narrative fiction films being produced in 1896, but contrast this with any of them and it’s evident how sophisticated and proficient Méliès had rapidly become as a filmmaker and a storyteller. The pacing alone is remarkable, particularly given its length, as there is something happening every second throughout. There are a few edits that happen without anything appearing or disappearing from the scene, presumably because the camera needed a fresh supply of film. But these are so seamless that I’m not even sure I spotted them all. Méliès’s camera also seems to have already had a larger capacity than most of his competitors.

The one element that seems particularly underdeveloped is the ending. It not only raises the question of why there is a cross inside Mephistopheles’s home to begin with, it also ends so abruptly that it fails to really resolve anything. But recall that this is really a piece of brief entertainment that was presented as an interlude in a longer stage act, and that it is entirely built on gimmicky camera tricks. Having used all of the tricks that he could think of to drive the story forward, Méliès simply ends the film.


~ by Jared on February 28, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Le Manoir du Diable (1896)”

  1. […] Méliès made Le Manoir du Diable in 1896, it was little more than a showcase for a whole series of stop tricks. Here, though, the […]


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