In the annals of old-timey horror–and don’t get me started on those 19th century ventriloquist dolls–some of the weirdest and most gleefully grotesque imagery of all can be found in our oldest silents. One example that leaps to mind is Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House, a six-minute film from 1907 that you’ll doubtless recognize from this still:
Ah yes, that one–with the hairy, paint-streaked demon with admirably bushy eyebrows. Also known as The Witch House, La Maison Ensorcelée, or The House of Ghosts, this frolicsome–hold on, is it called The Haunted Hotel too? Oh, that’s a different 1907 film–that’s not de Chomón’s too, is it? And wait, is The House of Ghosts actually an entirely different film from 1906? What’s going on??
Turns out there’s plenty of reasons for confusion–The Haunted House (1907) is a remake (or you might say “ripoff”) of J. Suart Blackton’s 1907 short The Haunted Hotel, which has very similar imagery. And The Haunted Hotel is apparently a remake of popular Méliès short The Bewitched Inn (1897). And there were likely other “remakes” between 1897-1907 that don’t survive, as well as similar variations on the theme of “uncanny camera tricks confounding folks just minding their own business.” Once a film was popular, it didn’t take long for other studios to follow suit. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning Hollywood’s lack of creativity, just remember: there’s nothing new in front of the camera. (Oh, and de Chomón’s 1906 film The House of Ghosts, which I think is lost, is currently being mistaken for The Haunted House on IMDb. Silly IMDb, making such a ridiculous mistake!)
Examining this little sample of remakes is like seeing a snippet of film evolution itself. The Bewitched Inn is very simple (I guess it is from 1897) and is one of Méliès’s exercises in his beloved camera tricks. Ten years later The Haunted Hotel takes the same idea farther by opening with an animated scene and adding a surprisingly good stop motion sequence, where “ghosts” serve a tea to a pointy-nosed traveler (who’s in one of those “grotesque” stage makeups). The version that floats around today is missing some key scenes, including one where the hotel room starts rocking back and forth.
De Chomón took a look at The Haunted Hotel, decided the world was finally ready for a bigger and better version (it had been a few weeks, after all) and made The Haunted House. The animated opening is nearly the same (with a bit more finesse), the stop motion sequence is much more sophisticated and he includes a whole trio of oddly-dressed protagonists. Their costumes suggest a quainter era, perhaps the early 19th century, but the makeup is pure Edwardian Stage Creepiness.
Ah, but de Chomón wasn’t content to stop there. He was a man of vision, and that vision included one of the wackier demons to grace those nickelodeon screens. The long pointed nails, snaggleteeth, and heavy makeup are about what you’d expect, but there’s also that wild, pigtail-like hairstyle. I think it’s actually a bald cap with crepe hair glued on the wrong way to make it extra bushy. No one could say that actor wasn’t imaginative, by gum!
The animated scene that opens The Haunted House shows a charmingly-painted night scene where a small house is struck by lightening, transforming into a goofy face. It doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film, but does set the bizarre, unpretentious tone. (De Chomón also slightly one-ups the Blackton version–but of course!) Since The Haunted House was regarded as a “novelty” film (“horror” wasn’t really a genre yet), it was basically a showcase for special effects. About half of them involve camera tricks, such as making objects disappear by stopping and starting the camera, or using matting and double exposures to make a demon appear. Others are achieved with good ol’ elbow grease–using strings to make a suitcase slither out the door, or to make coats and hats fly through the air. Scenes near the end show the room rocking back and forth as the characters hang onto a bed for dear life–probably achieved by tilting the camera and dragging the bed from side to side with rope (to their credit, the actors do a decent job of giving the illusion that the room’s really moving).
What might catch the modern viewer’s eye is how much frenetic motion there is in the short. The actors are constantly gesturing and scampering about the frame, filling up every second with as much energy as they can. This wasn’t uncommon back in these turn-of-the-century films, especially ones with fantasy themes–maybe old variety shows and pantomimes were similar, trying to keep audiences as attentive and entertained as possible. There are also little touches that must’ve made sense at the time–the two men, for instance, make a show of taking off belts with spare shoes, ladles, and other things attached to them. An old-fashioned way of carrying spare travel items?
And also eye-catching is the “ghostly tea” stop motion sequence, probably the best part of the film. The Blackton version showed a knife magically slicing bread and tea pouring itself with assistance from a small doll; de Chomón’s version doesn’t have a doll, but shows bread and sausage being sliced (one piece of sausage tries to scooch away) and includes a napkin fastidiously sweeping up crumbs. The amount of personality the animator managed to give to these household objects is just amazing, considering The Haunted House is well over a century old! (I almost reviewed it for Silent Stop Motion Month.)
There are probably 4.327,462,783 copies of The Haunted House on YouTube, many without music, and many with those atrocious “experimental” tracks that treat the film as some kind of trippy background (no, just no). The version below has organ music and is the only one I’ve found that I can sort of stand. Or try watching it without music–when all else fails, your imagination can be the soundtrack!
If you haven’t seen the film yet, buckle in and enjoy. And don’t worry, that dazed, baffled feeling is completely normal–especially once that hairy demon pops into view.