Gosh, I don’t know if today’s subject counts as cult movies. These are genre films, though. And they’re old.
They’re the first.
Horror, fantasy and SF in film effectively owe their existence to one man: Georges Méliès. A stage magician, he attended one of the first shows the Lumière brothers put on with their cinematograph, and was intrigued by the device’s commercial possibilities. Come 1896, he was making his own movies. He built a movie a studio, and here I let Denis Giffo…d take over the story: “He mounted his camera on a runway and in no time had created every trick in the movie book: stop-frame action, substitution, superimposition, animation, undercranking, split-screen, dissolves, fades both in and out, model work, miniature work, and the subtitle. Everything the horror film would ever need – including fantastic costume and grotesque makeup.”
His best known film, still widely seen, is of course Le voyage dans la lune (“A Trip to the Moon,” 1902). Méliès here fuses the plots of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon with his own cracked sensibilities. A canon-launched passenger shell lands on the moon (in its eye, to be precise, as the moon sputters in outrage). The distinguished astronauts (all bearded academics) discover acrobatic moon beings (Wells’ Selenites) that, when struck with an umbrella, explode in a puff of smoke. The filim is utterly charming, delightfully silly, and an early FX extravaganza. Two years later, Méliès would top himself with Le voyage à travers l’impossible (“The Impossible Voyage”), wherein an intrepid band of explorers take a train to the sun. This epic is also in colour – each frame hand-painted by an army of schoolgirls.
For all the monsters and demons that traipse through Méliès’ films, the dominant sensibility is one of whimsy. Every magical transformation is presented for the audience’s delight, and Méliès, who frequently starred in his own productions, is right there with us, just as delighted and amazed.
So, how does one see these films? The best bets on DVD are the Landmarks of Early Film Volumes 1 & 2 from Image. Volume 1 is an absolutely essential survey of the beginnings of the art form, beginning with Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers and ending with D.W. Griffith and the Keystone Kops. This is where you’ll find Le voyage dans la lune. Volume 2 is subtitled The Magic of Méliès. Le voyage à travers l’impossible is here, along with 14 other films. Though the likes of The Monster, The Vanishing Lady and The Devil’s Castle are unfortunately not among them, this remains an invaluable collection. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the best I’ve found so far. If I can find perfection, I’ll be sure to post the news.