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This sort of trick film, in which a traveler goes some place where
things mysteriously happen, was not new when J. Stuart Blackton made it
in 1907. Melies was making stuff like it in 1896. and the vim and verve
of his performances was a lot better than the actor's here.
Nonetheless, there was a change and advance in the decade and it was in the evolution of a film grammar. In the earlier films, the point of the transformations, appearances, disappearances and things moving on their own was that they were happening. They were the point of the movie and any actor on the screen stood in for the goggling audience. It was a magic act.
This film, however, is more than that. It is a story about a traveler who checks into a hotel and the weird and terrifying things that happen to him. The things that happen -- knives that cut sausage without anyone holding them -- are not the point of the movie, they are means of achieving the point. They have moved from simple shots to film vocabulary.
The vocabulary would remain the same, even though they grammar they exist in -- a cobbled-together pidgin of stage, magic lantern and ad hoc film usage -- would be swept away within half a decade. However, the next time you look at a horror movie, take a look. They're still using the same tricks.
The Haunted Hotel (1907)
**** (out of 4)
This film from Vitagraph is obviously one of the dozens (if not hundreds) of Georges Melies rip-offs but this one here is actually a mini-masterpiece. There appear to be many films with this title that were released around this time so this leads to some confusion about what people are actually seeing. The film (subtitled The Strange Adventures of a Traveler) here starts with a close up shot of a table with items like a loaf of bread, coffee and a few other things. Out of nowhere these items come to life. Melies was a master at the trick film but I must admit that this thing here is a masterpiece and it really is a complete joy to watch. Clocking in at just over a minute, the film manages to be quite thrilling through every second of that. I think the greatest moment in the film is the sequence where a knife comes up and starts cutting the break into pieces. It's just amazing to see this scene play out because it's very hard and nearly impossible to see how the effect was done. Director J. Stuart Blackton does a remarkable job at keeping everything flowing and there's no question that you really do get a haunted feeling while watching everything that happens.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw the Library of Congress print of 'The Haunted Hotel'. Here's an
American movie that's clearly inspired by the French 'trick' films of
Georges Melies. But whereas Melies relied on slapstick comedy and
pretty girls from the Folies Bergere, this movie is more sombre. After
some early camera tricks, it seems meant actually to frighten us!
IMDb's synopsis is accurate. The furniture and the traveller's clothes seem to be bewitched: the tricks are accomplished with jump cuts and some early stop-motion animation. The hapless traveller is played by Paul Panzer, who would later portray the villain in 'The Perils of Pauline'. Panzer was somewhat sharp-nosed in real life; here, as the traveller in 'The Haunted Hotel', he wears a putty nose so long and sharp that its effect is alienating; it looks more like a heron's bill than a human nose. Perhaps the alienation was intentional; maybe the makers of this film didn't want us to empathise with the victim of these hauntings. I was intrigued that Panzer is shown in close shot, whilst Melies's very similar movies were nearly always filmed in long shot.
SPOILERS COMING. Although this movie might seem quite innocent, I don't recommend it for very young children. At the very end of the movie, as the traveller attempts to go to sleep, the frame is suddenly invaded by a rather hideous and malicious-looking demon in extreme close-up: the effect is frightening rather than funny. Also, the demon's presence seems to imply that there's no escape from the haunted hotel. The natural ugliness of actor William Ranous, as the demon, only adds to the shock of that final coup de cinema. I'll rate this clever movie 8 out of 10 ... but don't let very young children watch that ending!
Well, I have to say that among so many silent supernatural horror short
films I've seen recently, this is another outstanding addition I
recommend, and not exactly for its originality (remember that Méliès
had already experimented with the genre before, and even the director
J. Stuart Blackton here also aimed to impress rather than cause fear),
but for its strong way to show incredible special effects and develop a
fast-paced, yet thoroughly engaging story.
A traveler arriving to a haunted hotel and staying while finding himself haunted by spirits in his room. He tries to avoid these "visions" and stay calm, probably thinking everything is in his head, possibly due to the long way he may have come. But he then learns things may not be what they seem, until concluding in a somewhat dark note (I can easily imagine people back then being freaked out by that ending, and I even dare to say that a couple of moments and characters are still creepy nowadays).
The atmosphere and ambient of the house and the room are well delivered. While on the other hand, the make-up for the main character was very good but a little distracting: I didn't get why he had a big pointy nose, unless they wanted him to be as creepy-looking as the ghosts and monsters in the house.
Great production values and visual style, with a fantastic use of stop motion (pay attention to the breakfast scene, and that subsequent scary miniature figure) and trick photography effects (the freaky dancing ghosts scene), and atmospheres makes for another great experience by J. Stuart Blackton that makes me appreciate the silent era of film a little bit more.
At the beginning of this Vitagraph Company short film (five and
one-half minutes) we see, not a hotel, but a cottage that is a small
country inn. Perhaps in the early 20th century such inns were called
hotels. In any case, the inn immediately mutates into a scary face. In
the next scene we are inside the inn, where a traveler enters with his
baggage. The traveler is very creepy looking with his craggy-looking
face and Pinocchio nose. Before long, items such as baggage and cloth
napkins are moving by themselves. Dinner prepares itself. A knife cuts
a sausage in two, and also slices a loaf of bread. A beverage (ale?)
pours itself into a mug, and then a pot of coffee pours into a cup. A
tiny clown departs the pot.
At bedtime the weary traveler's problems really begin. For one thing, the furniture moves, then the house tilts. Ghosts dance around the bed. At the end, a wall disappears and an awful demon of mammoth size appears in back of the bed and snatches into his huge hand the traveler along with his blanket. The film is more terrifying than comical (especially for the young), but still enjoyable. Taking pleasure in this film certainly does not detract from the works of Georges Melies, who made "The Bewitched Inn" in 1897.
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