La Maison Ensorcelée (Pathé, 1908)
To begin with, Segundo de Chomón’s La Maison Ensorcelée (1908), or “The Enchanted House”, is a beat-for-beat rip-off of J. Stuart Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel (1907). There’s long been confusion about who was stealing from whom, as the film is often misidentified as La Maison Hantée (“The Haunted House”), which Chomón made two years before in 1906. Hantée is presumed to be lost — however, reading its plot synopsis or just looking at the recorded run time will tell you that Hantée had to be an entirely unrelated work.
Three people, evidently traveling across the countryside, are caught in the rain. They spot a house that, frankly, doesn’t look too inviting. Between bolts of lightning, a trio of witches can be seen flying through the sky. One bolt strikes the house and it’s transformed into a googly-eyed face.
Inside, the travelers are immediately taunted by spectral beings of various sorts — finding their belongings moving around on their own, and their coats and hats standing up and walking away. They sit down to a meal. A knife lifts itself and slices the sausage and bread. The cups slide into place and an invisible hand pours out the coffee and drops sugar cubes into each.
It turns ugly when the house starts spinning and the travelers are flung to the ground. They seek shelter under the covers of the bed, but the back wall fades away and a giant demon appears that sweeps them up in one hand. In the forest, he leaves them dangling from a high tree branch.
The only significant change in the story between La Maison Ensorcelée and The Haunted Hotel is that, in the latter, there is only one traveler rather than three. The plot and visuals used are otherwise near identical. With that said, Ensorcelée is an enormous technical achievement that surpasses Haunted Hotel in almost every aspect.
To give only one example: In Haunted Hotel, the stop-motion animated food sequence (which the film is most known for) is one, uninterrupted medium-shot of the table. When it’s over, it pans to the traveler, who we can only assume was watching. Ensorcelée cuts to a reaction shot partway through the sequence, and at the end, the travelers lean into the frame in the same arrangement they were in previously, letting us know that they were there the whole time and saw all that we saw. It’s really not much at all, but it’s a little touch that makes the film play so much better.
I liked La Maison Ensorcelée (1908). It’s a flagrant rip-off of Blackton’s film, but it’s hardly the only example of one filmmaker mimicking another’s success in the early silent era, and unlike, say, Lubin’s Great Train Robbery (1904), I think this one actually improves on his model.
My rating: I like it.