Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Terrible Night (1896)

It's somewhat difficult to pinpoint what the earliest giant monster movie ever made is.  Accounts tend to differ, as films were much shorter in the earliest days of the medium, and were shown locally rather than given the global - or even national - releases that modern audiences are used to.  Still, film historians tend to agree that the first man to bring giant monsters to the world of larger-than-life celluloid was mostly like French artist Georges Méliès.  Méliès is an accomplished film maker from before the medium had even become an accepted form of art, making somewhere around fifteen-hundred films in all - maybe even more!  However, for the vast amount of works he produced, many of them have been lost to time, and are only known about in obscure, broad details.  Unfortunately, when it comes to identifying the first giant monster movie, those obscure details have somewhat dirtied the waters, because while many agree that A Terrible Night is likely Méliès' first true creature feature, there are actually two completely separate versions of the film floating around.

First, some background: Méliès is known for having made multiple experimental special effects films during his career, and due to the scale and scope of his productions - as well as their tendency to focus on the fantastical - it is almost certain that he was responsible for the very first giant monster movie ever made.  Prior to film making, Méliès was a stage magician, or an illusionist, and just so happened to be present at a screening of a film put on by the Lumière brothers, who are in fact credited as being the first true film makers in history.  Back in those days there were no movies theaters, and the Lumière brothers had to show their short films in booths at fairs or other venues.  In fact, film was so rare and amazingly new, it has been reported that when the Lumière brothers showed an audience footage of a train arriving at a station, the audience was terrified because they actually thought the footage of the train would continue past the screen and hit them.  Georges Méliès was clearly impressed by what he saw in their presentation, and actually immediately offered to buy one of their cameras from them on the spot.  They turned him down, but he immediately set off to work on building his own cameras, as well as how to print and develop the film itself.

So dedicated was Méliès to his cause that he constructed his own unique studio, made out of glass in order to have maximum lighting.  He also went on to hand craft beautiful sets and props, including exquisitely detailed paintings for backdrops, fantastical costumes, and - in some cases - full-size puppets of monsters and other creatures.  His films - as striking as they are - were often fairly short, some only lasting a few minutes at a time, and many were used as experiments for new and inventive techniques. Often credited as the father of special effects, he pioneered almost every basic technique used in film today.  Not only that, but among his estimated fifteen-hundred films, he pioneered many film genres as well; including fantasy, sci fi, and even the proto-creature feature.  Which is what brings us to A Terrible Night, and it's alternate version, A Midnight Episode.  While a far cry from the longer, more structured and more expertly crafted films that Méliès is known for, A Terrible Night might be best described as something of an experiment rather than a full film.  It only lasts a few minutes, but still manages to be the first to bring enormous insects to the big screen, terrorizing hapless humans who are forced to fight back.

The story takes place in one scene, in which a man rests upon a bed, trying to get some sleep as the luminous rays of the moon shine down upon him.  However, he is suddenly awakened when a giant bug behind crawling up his bed and all over his body.  Indignant, the man awakes and attacks the beast with anything he can find, including a broom and a chamber pot.  The creature seems to evade him for some time, but ultimately the human protagonist comes out victorious, and is able to return to bed, though shaken from the incident.  Though he would later be known for creating lavish sets with mind boggling special effects, A Terrible Night predates Méliès's use of cinematic special effects by a few years, with the first known Méliès film with camera effects being The Vanishing Lady, made in 1896.  Instead, the giant insect is done completely with practical effects, being a simple stiff prop controlled by a wire. The film was shot in the open air, in the garden of Méliès' home in Montreuil, using natural sunlight and a cloth backdrop.  And as is usual for his films, Méliès appears in the film himself, playing the main protagonist.

The original A Terrible Night

However, as mentioned above, there are two versions of the film in existence, and the details as to which is which are somewhat foggy.  A Terrible Night is believed to be the 26th film in Méliès' catalogue, dated 1896, and for many years was numbered as one of Méliès' surviving films.  However, in 2013, Méliès' great-great-granddaughter, Pauline Méliès, published findings suggesting that the film commonly believed to be A Terrible Night is actually a later Méliès film called A Midnight Episode, numbered 190 in the catalogue, dated 1899.  A Midnight Episode could be considered something of a remake, with Méliès reusing the same plot, and many of the same props.  This assertion means that what many people have seen and thought of as A Terrible Night is, in all likeliness, not the original film.  So what became of that original film?  Well, Pauline further asserted that the original A Terrible Night survives in two copies, with the first being a photocollage held by the Cinémathèque Française, and the second being a flipbook published by Lèon Beaulieu around the turn of the century. If this hypothesis is accurate, both A Terrible Night and A Midnight Episode survive.  And either way, A Terrible Night and A Midnight Episode both invoke a traditional staple of giant monster movies: the notion of giant insects.  While Méliès' insects are not as big as a bus and crushing cities beneath their mighty exoskeleton, they are terrorizing mankind in a classic man vs nature scenario.  Georges would go on to make hundreds of films, and many would indeed feature monsters of all shapes and sizes - in essence, the first kaiju to ever tear it up on the silver screen - such as the large dragon in 1905's Palace of Arabian Nights.

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