Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Melies: Macabre Magician

Of the 500 or so films produced in stage magician and pioneering film-maker Georges Melies' career, only 90 survive, and only a quarter are fit for exhibition.

Melies, third son of a shoe manufacturer, is best known for his famous early science fiction film, "A Trip to the Moon," the style and sensibilities of which were most recently resurrected by the Smashing Pumpkins in their video for "Tonight, Tonight."

But watching a collection of his movies acquired through Netflix, I'm amazed at how many of Melies' movies touch on elements of the diabolical, the supernatural and the ghostly.

According to's "The Religious Affiliation of Director Georges Melies," "phantasmagoria, fantasy and the macabre were major thematic elements" of his work -- a fact that shows clearly in the shorts I watched, and apparently in many more of his films.

His worlds are filled time and time again with devils, spirits, monsters and even the Archfiend himself, most often played by Melies as a gleeful, capering force of mayhem, mischief and (at times) erotic temptation.

The fantastic abounds. In an adaptation of the story of "Bluebeard," the shades of the famous wife-killer's conquests stand in diaphanous accusation. Mephistopheles parades through an inordinate number of the pictures, Melies' frentic, grinning mug displaying a look of utter joy at his diablerie. The world is turned topsy-turvey as a mysterious boarder unpacks -- and later, re-packs -- a seemingly bottomless trunk with everything from furnishings to his perfect little family. A mad scientist interacts with a disembodied head, inflating it until it explodes. Considering his pioneering status in the world of film, some of these exercises in cinematic experimentation continue to amaze.

In addition to his own recurring role as the devil, Melies was apparently obsessed with depictions of women as bastions of goodness or tempestuous icons., quoting page 106 of "Marvelous Melies," written by Hammond, calls his overall philosophy "Manichean," his works filled with two types of women - angels and temptresses:
"Women are everything to Melies; they are objects of contemplation and externalisations of desire. They can appear from nowhere to change places with flowers, caterpillars, skeletons, coins, bits of paper, ghosts, marble, soap bubbles, their doubles, playing cards, clocks, veils, Jesus Christ, Satan, and being privileged beings, with Geoges Melies himself."

Seductive women appear as "ghosts and succubi, the seven deadly sins, as the devil's agents, and as Satan," Hammond says. Further horrific elements grace some of his other works, from prancing skeletons to what some regard as early visions of the latter-day vampire film.

Melies draws freely on folklore, history and legend, from 1906's "The Merry Frolics of Satan," which Hammond says is a variation on the Faust legend, to stories of the Wandering Jew, Joan of Arc, and the Temptation of St. Anthony.

A variety of classic horror tropes appear in his works, such as in "The Bewitched Inn," featuring a traveler frightened when his own clothing comes to life. M.R. James' seminal ghost story, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" deals with a similar spook in a similar setting.

His film "Le Manoir du Diable" is apparently regarded by many as one of the first vampire films. In it, the devil enters a creepy castle in the form of a bat and is later dispatched by a cross-wielding crusader. I haven't seen that one, unfortunately, and I can't find it online. But here are a few enjoyable shorts via YouTube for your viewing pleasure:

The Infernal Cauldron

The Infernal Cake-Walk

The Black Imp


Monday, July 2, 2007

Brief thoughts on 1408

Sorry for the delay. Lots of genuinely good reasons.

And now, not-really-a-review: We saw "1408" the day it came out, and I have to say that I still prefer the short story.

The original tale is very much an homage to Lovecraft, with quite a bit of other nods to famous horror tropes thrown in -- pictures and objects that change ala M.R. James' "The Mezzotint," mysterious messages on the telephone, etc. But mostly, it's Lovecraftian in tone because 1408 is just plain metaphysically and cosmically wrong. It's a Bad Place in the classical sense of the term.

In the film, it's turned more into the private torture chamber of Cusack's character, a place where past fears and suppressed pains meet in a personal hell. This moves the story from "The Dark Descent's" classification of Fantastic horror fiction to a more standard blend of Moral and Psychological, far more akin to something you'd expect to see in the "Silent Hill" games or the film adaptation of the same.

In both versions of "1408," Cusack's character, Mike Enslin, is a skeptic, but he's a skeptic for very different reasons in each variation.

In the film version, it's implied (spoilers follow):

That Enslin is a skeptic because of personal bitterness stemming from the death of his daughter. He can't comprehend why God would have taken her, so he chooses to jettison the idea of any sort of deity or life after death out of a palpable and inescapable pain. At one point in the film, he's asked how many faiths he has himself destroyed because of his skeptical writings. Obviously, this is part of his pain and thus, part of his punishment in 1408.
The film version of 1408 becomes a glimpse into a private purgatory, the implication (through a clock that resets itself over and over again) that Enslin will be condemned to repeat the same terror-filled hour over and over again until he "check himself out," so to speak. Like the short story, he escapes, but the implications of what this means are again profoundly different, pregnant with (to my eyes) implied Judeo-Christian profundities. At one point, the room is even cast into a Dantean chill, and Enslin drips the 10,000-pound clue that the deepest portions of hell are the furthest from light and warmth.

Given the current cultural climate, I'm not suprised that the filmmakers took this route. I realize that adapting any sort of short story to film length requires revision and expansion, but the difference between the original tale and this is pretty radical, even though many major plot points and even salient events are kept.

The film adaptation injects an implied good/evil duality that simply has no place in King's original story, and perhaps a further implication of a Guiding Hand leading Cusack's Enslin to a destined appointment with the Evil Room. Samuel L. Jackson's mysterious hotel manager, Olin, seems positively deific in one scene when 1408, now ablaze thanks to Mike's actions, is being consumed forever in hellish flame. "Well done," he intones, eyes aglitter with a grim pride.
Don't get me wrong - I didn't demand my money back. But the "1408" of the short story collection "Everything's Eventual" and the celluloid version are very, very different from one another. This is neither better nor worse, but simply an interpretation open to personal preference. I lean toward the Lovecraftian. Others may like the room depicted in the film. I guess it depends entirely on what scares you.