One of the First Horror Films: The Haunted Castle (1896)


The Haunted Castle (or Le Manoir du diable) is a dream-like, short silent film directed by Georges Méliès. Some consider it the first horror movie, but it can be admired apart from that distinction.

To begin with, we have a lot of standard horror imagery — or, actually, what would become standard horror imagery in cinema.  It also has comedic aspects, which is true of countless horror movies to this day.  Also interesting:  This movie was believed lost until 1988, when it was found in the New Zealand Film Archive (it can also be found here below this paragraph).

The Haunted Castle – one of the first horror movies.

Because it’s such a short and fast-moving film (about 3:19), the best way to discuss it is to summarize it:  The Haunted Castle starts with a bat entering a medieval castle and transforming into a man  — the Devil, to be exact. It should be remembered that, back then, this was considered fresh rather than clichéd.  In fact, this is the first known instance of bat-to-man transformation depicted in film.  That alone makes this film worth seeing, especially as a horror fan.

Also, keep in mind that people were more likely to believe in things like the Devil, vampires, witches, ghosts, demons, what have you.  This movie probably packed a far bigger punch also because it was so early in cinematic history.  Movies in general were new.  It would have been amazing to see the magic unfold, whereas now it would be considered more quirky.

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In any case, this Devil lives up to his reputation.  With his magical powers, he conjures up an assistant and a cauldron.  In very little time, the Dark One also conjures a woman (Jehanne d’Alcy) from said cauldron.  She promptly leaves the room, like she existed just to spring from the cauldron and leave.  We are left to guess at her purpose.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a few men enter The Haunted Castle, not knowing what just occurred.  Taking advantage of this, the Devil’s assistant — a comical prankster — repeatedly pokes them and disappears, causing one of the men to flee the scene.  The one who stays has more weird tricks played on him.

When he tries to sit on a chair, it disappears and reappears across the room.  Then, when he tries to sit on it, a skeleton appears beneath him.  Angered by this, the man jabs at the skeleton with his sword, which strangely transforms the bony trickster into a bat.  Now, from what we witnessed earlier, we can assume the bat is also the Devil.

Indeed it is!

Anyway, the Devil being the Devil, he conjures up four ghosts to fight with the man.  The man faints and the four specters disappear.  Now, as if to apologize, the Devils introduces the man to the lady who previously disappeared.  Our hero thinks she’s hot stuff, but guess what?  The fun’s not over yet!  The Devil’s magic transforms her into a withered old woman, then into four ghosts again.

The Haunted Castle – Courtesy of New Zealand Film Archive

Suddenly, for whatever reason, the man who had previously fled returns.  Perhaps he thought the coast was clear?  Well, he was wrong.  So wrong  that he’s frightened enough to leap off the balcony (though we can’t see or hear the results, one can imagine a splat).  Before long, the protagonist finally has had enough.  He locates a cross and apparently vanquishes the Devil —  much in the tradition of vampire legend (which is hellbent on preserving Christian imagery triumphing over evil).

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The Haunted Castle is an interesting movie, even if dated.  The humor is still in tact, and perhaps it was never fully intended as a horror movie anyway.  Nevertheless, it is a reasonably fun watch for what it is.