A Terrible Night

Table of Contents

S1E2: Broken Dawn

Sequel Madness

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good sequel. Don’t get me wrong, not all sequels are good, and I do love a brand new, original film above all else. But there’s something nice about the idea of a sequel. It’s familiar and comfortable, sort of like a warm blanket. I like it when filmmakers aren’t afraid to revisit previously explored territory, but I love it when they add something new to the fiction. Characters return and final girls may die, but the lore almost always ends up expanded in some way. Admittedly, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But when everything works, it can be incredibly satisfying.

Braggadocious Anti-Hero, Ash Williams. From Evil Dead II.

One of my favorite sequels is 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, directed by Sam Raimi. If you haven’t seen it, Evil Dead II is an amazingly manic horror-comedy. The movie deftly oscillates from sequences of intense fear to moments of complete absurdity. In terms of horror-comedies, I honestly don’t think there is another film that walks the line so precisely. The first Evil Dead is a straight horror film whose comedy really only comes from moments of amateurish acting and a degree of campiness that permeates throughout the movie. Evil Dead II takes the general premise and executes on an amazing expansion in terms of both story and tone. It is from the sequel that the character of Ash begins to transform into the braggadocious deadite-stomping anti-hero that would become mainstream in the third film, Army of Darkness, and in the recent TV series, Ash vs. Evil Dead.

In the spirit of sequels, then, allow me to begin with a quick recap. On the first episode of Horrid, I covered the subject of the very first horror movie, which is most often credited to director Georges Méliès and his 1896 film, The House of the Devil. I had originally intended on spending only a single episode devoted to the french filmmaker, but as I researched Méliès’ life and films, interesting pieces of information began to emerge. I simply couldn’t resist following up on some of these, so this episode is really more of a companion piece to the previous episode, covering a few other firsts for the burgeoning medium of film.

The Haunted Castle

The year after making The House of the Devil, Méliès directed another film sharing many of the same themes and visuals. This pseudo-sequel, The Haunted Castle, is the second time that Méliès would appear as the Devil in one of his own films. It’s  a role that he would go on to play countless times. Much like the earlier film, The Haunted Castle follows Méliès’ Devil character as he performs a series of substitution tricks on an increasingly befuddled man.

The Haunted Castle is in the public domain and can also be watched online; a copy of the film can be viewed on the page for this episode on horridpocast.com. At first glance, you might notice that the scenery and the actors look strikingly similar to the earlier film, The House of the Devil. However, there are two obvious differences: one, the later film has a runtime of only 44 seconds, whereas the earlier film runs for over three minutes. Second, The Haunted Castle is presented in color. Now, Doc, you’re saying, aren’t all films from this time period in black and white? Well, you’re not wrong. All motion pictures from this period were indeed shot on black and white film. However, this colorized version of The Haunted Castle was hand painted. Literally every frame of the film was painted by hand by Elisabeth Thullier, a worker that Méliès hired to colorize many of these early, shorter films. 

This method of hand tinting film became a fairly common technique for presenting motion pictures in color. Eventually, Thullier opened a large factory specializing in this technique. At its peak, her factory was staffed by over 200 women, each of whom would be responsible for applying a single color to an entire film. Some of the more complex films might include 20 colors or more. The Haunted Castle is especially notable as, although it was not the first hand colored film – this title belongs to Edison studios’ 1895 film Annabelle’s Dance – but it was the first Méliès film to undergo the process. Méliès would go on to offer many of his films either in black and white or in color, with the latter option incurring an additional cost on the buyer of print.

The action in The Haunted Castle is as follows: We open on a man and his friend who are seen entering a large room. The friend departs, and the man goes to sit in a chair, which, in a sudden flash, disappears and reappears across the room, causing the man to crash to the floor. The man approaches the chair and a white-robed spirit appears sitting upon it. The man draws his sword and moves to run through the ghost; as his sword makes contact, the ghost transforms into a skeleton and the man’s sword passes through the rib cage. As if to reinforce the unbelievable sights before his eyes, the man reaches out to touch the skeleton, which again suddenly changes form, this time becoming a large man in a suit of armor. Completely befuddled, the man rears back; only to have his hand grabbed by a devil as the suit of armor disappears. The man turns to flee, but is intercepted by a ghost as the film comes to its end. 

The action of The Haunted Castle feels truncated, especially in comparison to the much more elaborate sequence of events presented in Méliès’ earlier film, The House of the Devil. The film ends just as the man’s escape is blocked by the returning ghost, and no satisfying conclusion is shown. At first, I thought that the surviving film print might be incomplete. This is a fairly common occurrence, as many films from this era are either lost entirely, or exist only in truncated form, as only portions of the original film may have survived to modern day. Luckily, a copy of the Complete Catalogue of Genuine and Original Star Films, originally published in 1905, can be referenced online. The Haunted Castle, listed as the 96th production of Star Films, is listed as being 65 feet in length. This was a common measurement for early motion pictures, and is a reference to the actual, physical length of the film stock on which the movie was filmed. The length of 65 feet correlates to the minute runtime, so despite appearances, we can conclude that this in fact the complete, original film of The Haunted Castle, just as George Méliès intended. I think this serves as a stark reminder that narrative storytelling was not always the goal of Méliès and other contemporary filmmakers.

Given the similarities between the two films, it might be more appropriate to consider The Haunted Castle as like the world’s first remake, as opposed to a sequel. While I think The House of the Devil is ultimately the more successful film, there is a definite improvement in the implementation of the special effects in The Haunted Castle. You can clearly see that Méliès has matured as a filmmaker and as an editor, so it is understandable that he would want to revisit the ideas from his earlier works.

Mistaken Identity

If you  plan to search for Méliès’ films online yourself, as I did when researching for this podcast, you will likely notice conflicting information. In its original French language, the film from 1896 is titled Le Manoir du Diable. While the French title directly translates to The Manor, or The House of the Devil, it was known as The Haunted Castle in the United States, and as The Devil’s Castle in the United Kingdom. Today, it is the US title, The Haunted Castle, that is most often used when referring to the film online. 

But Doc, you said the movie from 1897 was titled The Haunted Castle! That’s the same title! Don’t worry, you’re not the only one that’s confused. The title of the later film, Le Château Hanté in the original French, also happens to directly translate to The Haunted Castle. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure this out, but during my research I eventually realized that this unfortunate naming quirk had resulted in countless cases of confusions and mistaken identity online. For example, when I was first researching for this episode, the photo on the Wikipedia page for the 1897 film was actually a still from the 1896 film.

So, as a word of warning, if you do look up these films for yourself, note that searching for The Haunted Castle is going to bring up results for both films. There’s just no avoiding it. For the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to these two films by the direct translations of their titles, being The House of the Devil for the earlier film, and The Haunted Castle for the film from 1897.

Misattributions Abound

While reading about Méliès and his films, I also noted a second misconception often cited online. Many sources present Méliès’ later film, The Haunted Castle, as having been directed by George Albert Smith, an English film pioneer and a contemporary of Méliès. The misattribution arises from the 1973 edition of The British Film Catalogue, which does list a December 1897 release of a film with this title, and which attributes it to Smith. 

A Portrait of George Albert Smith.

However, film historian John Barnes dispelled this belief in his 1983 book, The Rise of Cinema in Great Britain, in which Barnes concludes that The Haunted Castle had been falsely attributed to George Albert Smith and was actually directed by Méliès. I wanted to mention this as the fact that this piece of misinformation continues to circulate nearly 35 years later illustrates an unfortunate reality of performing research on the internet; namely, that search results often favor popular information over that which is correct.

A Terrible Night

As it turns out, the concept of the remake appears to have been a fairly common one, even in the earliest days of film. While researching Georges Méliès and his films, I came across another, even earlier film, entitled Une nuit terrible, or, directly translated, A Terrible Night. Based on its chronological listing in the Star Film Company catalog, the production of A Terrible Night even precedes that of The House of the Devil. A Terrible Night appears as film number 26 in the catalog, whereas The House of the Devil is labeled as films numbered 78 to 80. Note that The House of the Devil is listed as multiple numbers as, initially, the films were numbered in a way that correlated with the numbers of reels of film required to film it. 

The runtime of A Terrible Night is relatively short, coming in at approximately one minute. Again, this is consistent for a film listed as appearing on a single reel, or 65 feet of film. As the film begins, we see a man dressed in his pajamas as he settles into bed for the evening. As the man attempts to drift off to sleep, a very large insect, about the size of a cat, begins to climb up the sheets and into the bed with him. The man is terrified and fights off the insect, killing it and disposing of it in his bedside chamber pot. The man attempts to go back to sleep but continues to be disturbed. He rapidly attacks several more unseen assailants; some in his bed and others on the wall. He bats at the sheets with his slipper and grabs at the wall, miming the action of throwing something to the ground. As the film comes to a close, the man is kicking away the sheets, no doubt still feeling the phantom crawling of imaginary insects.

Interestingly, as I delved deeper into the history of A Terrible Night, an interesting story and another potential case of mistaken identity began to emerge. I came across a French language website, Méliès.eu, which is maintained by Pauline Méliès, the great-great-granddaughter of Georges Méliès. On that site, Pauline published an article in 2013 that provides evidence that the film commonly believed to be A Terrible Night may actually be a later Méliès film titled A Midnight Episode. Pauline suggests that A Midnight Episode may be a remake of A Terrible Night, much like The Haunted Castle is a loose remake of The House of the Devil.

In the article, Pauline provides photographic evidence of a photo collage held by the Cinémathèque Française and of a flip book published around the turn of the century. Both of these items show a scene very similar to that seen in the video commonly labeled as A Terrible Night online, but with a couple of key differences. First, the scenery and the bed seen in the flip book are much less elaborate. Second, the overall image quality is simply worse, matching somewhat well with the image quality on display in a short Méliès movie depicting the arrival of a train, and which is labeled as film number 35 in the Star Film catalog. I only mention the catalog number of the train film, as it does place it as having been produced around the same time as A Terrible Night. Both of these observations indicate that these photos are of an earlier work, which Pauline hypothesizes is most likely the true original version of A Terrible Night.

Pauline’s post was published some 6 years ago, and has gone on to be quoted in several different places online, including the Wikipedia page for A Terrible Night. While word of her hypothesis has spread, it’s not entirely clear to me that Pauline’s conclusion is correct. I agree that the flip book depicts a very similar yet less elaborate version of the events shown in the film commonly referred to as A Terrible Night. However, let us return to the Star Film catalogue to observe the descriptions of the two films. First, here is the description for A Terrible Night:

A humorous subject, full of action, showing the retiring of a young man who is disturbed by midnight marauders upon whom he makes an assault, slaughtering four or five in rapid succession. 

And now, The Star Film Catalogue’s description of A Midnight Episode:

A sleeping apartment of a friend who retires for the night. The rays of the moon are shining upon the bed through the window. He is suddenly awakened by a bug of gigantic proportions crawling over him. This he attacks and destroys, but before again retiring he notices three more climbing up the wall. He lights the candle and applies flame to each, causing them to explode with a fine smoke effect. After this slaughter, he retires in contentment and soon sleeps the sleep of the just. A very funny subject.

Comparing these film catalogue descriptions to the film that appears online, it is clear that the film in question best matches the description of A Terrible Night. In the video found online, you only ever see one insect, but the man does go on to swat at four several more which he perceives to be crawling in his covers or on his walls. Further, and contrasting to the description for A Midnight Episode, the man in the video never attacks the insects with a candle, there are no smoke effects on display, and the film does not end with the man falling asleep. 

How can these descriptions be reconciled with the flipbook imagery presented by Pauline Melies? One possibility is that the movie commonly found online is in fact A Midnight Episode, and the surviving print is incomplete. If this were true, then this would explain why the film ends before all of the action in the description plays out. While this sounds like a reasonable explanation, it is unlikely to be the case. In the Star Films Catalogue, A Midnight Episode is listed as being 65 feet in length, or one reel, which corresponds well to the minute runtime of the print commonly found online. If there were missing footage, then we would expect the Star Film Catalogue to list A Midnight Episode as having been filmed on more than one reel.

Based on these observations, there are only two conclusions that make sense. Either the film commonly known as A Terrible Night online is in fact A Midnight Episode and the description found in the Star Film Catalogue is, let’s say fanciful at best, or the film commonly known as A Terrible Night cannot actually be A Midnight Episode as Pauline Méliès suggests. Either way, the footage present in the flip book is still a remarkable discovery, and it does certainly suggest that Georges Méliès produced a work similar to A Terrible Night more than once. Since it doesn’t seem like the exact identity of all of these works can be clearly established, I will, for now, continue to refer to the common version of this film as A Terrible Night.

The First Horror Film?

Given the earlier production date, I also can’t help but think that A Terrible Night has a greater claim to the title of “earliest horror film” than does The House of the Devil. No one online ever seems to mention A Terrible Night in posts about the earliest horror film, but the elements of horror are there just as they are in the later production of The House of the Devil. The giant insect, which is just a simple cardboard prop puppeted by wire, is likely to be one of the first examples of a practical monster effect on film, and it is clear that the insect instills terror within the man that appears in the film. At the very least, it isn’t a stretch to say that A Terrible Night is perhaps the world’s first creature feature. And if you are willing to entertain that idea, I can’t help but ask, what is a creature feature if not a type of horror movie?

Final Thoughts

As you can see, it didn’t take very long for the horror genre to become entangled in the concepts of sequels and remakes. While I think that sequels and remakes often get dismissed by fans a little too easily, I can’t deny that in this first instance The House of the Devil is the superior film to The Haunted Castle

If you are inclined to watch either The Haunted Castle or A Terrible Night, both of these films are in the public domain and can be viewed on the transcript page for this episode at horridpodcast.com. I’ve also included a copy of Pauline Méliès’ flipbook animation of that primitive version of A Terrible Night so you can make your own comparisons. 

If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.

If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, consider taking two minutes of your time to tell two of your friends about Horrid. If you’d like to hear more about the history of horror, be sure to subscribe to Horrid through the podcast portal of your choice.

Until next time, stay scared.

Related Media

The Haunted Castle - Le Château Hanté (1897)

Play Video

Une Nuit Terrible - A Terrible Night (1896)

Play Video

Flipbook Footage from Cinémathèque Française - Une Nuit Terrible

Play Video

References & Further Reading

  1. Complete Catalogue of Genuine and Original “Star” Films. Accessed: January 3, 2020. Available: https://doi.org/doi:10.7282/T3CR5TJ3
  2. Barnes, John. The Rise of the Cinema in Gt. Britain: Jubilee Year 1897. Bshopsgate Press, 1983.
  3. Untitled Page from Méliès.eu. Pauline Méliès. Accessed: January 3, 2020. Available: https://www.Méliès.eu/trainfpegm/index_5.htm
  4. Georges Méliès Official Website – Site Officiel, Une nuit terrible… une grande première!! www.Méliès.eu/trainfpegm/index_6.htm. Accessed: April, 2, 2019.