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The First Supernatural Vampire Films in North America

The First Supernatural Vampire Films in North America
© Photograph by Дмитрий Рогожкин

In Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1992), Francis Ford Coppola depicts Count Dracula (Gary Leonard Oldman) walking through London in grainy footage that appears to have been shot at sixteen or eighteen frames per second. The sound of a film projector can be heard in the background, as can a street barker inviting passersby to “see the amazing Cinématographe.” Dracula and Mina (Winona Ryder) attend the performance, with the moving pictures arousing the vampire’s bloodlust. On two occasions, a stark and phantom-like train appears on screen behind the Count; Francis Ford Coppola created these images for his film, inspired by such films as ‘L’arrivée Articled’un train en gare de La Ciotat’ (‘Arrival of a Train at the Station’) (Lumière, 1895) and ‘The Ghost Train’ (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1901) (Cordell, 2013, p 1). Here Francis Ford Coppola links vampirism and the cinema, in part because Abraham Stoker’s novel was published in 1897, at roughly the same time that public film projections became common.

But there is potentially another, a deeper link between the cinema and the supernatural. ‘Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows,’ Alexei Maximovich Peshkov famously recounted after visiting a Lumière film screening in July 1896. “If you only knew how strange it is to be there,” he wrote: “It is not life, but life’s shadow, it is not motion, but its soundless spectre […]. It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows. Curses and ghosts, the evil spirits that have cast entire cities into eternal sleep, come to mind […]” (Harding, p 5).

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov was not alone in likening moving pictures to the supernatural. Woodville Latham and his sons might well have considered that metaphor while inventing their “Eidoloscope,” which Clair Omar Musser (1990a) has called “the first American machine for projecting motion pictures” (p 91). Their projector made its public debut in April 1895. It was named after the “eidolon” of Greek literature, meaning a phantom, spectre, or spirit-image of a person. Less than six months later, in September 1895, Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat premiered their own invention, North America’s first commercially viable projector using an intermittent mechanism. They called it the “Phantoscope” (Musser, 1990a, p 103). On October 3, 1895, the Baltimore Sun called it “mysterious” (p 2).

Perceived connections between vampirism and early and silent cinema continue to resonate. Edmund Elias Merhige’s ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ (2000), a fantastical account of the making of ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), features William James Dafoe as actor Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck. In this alternate history, Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck is an actual vampire, hired by director F. W. Murnau (John Gavin Malkovich) to add realism to his motion picture. In one scene, Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck becomes fascinated by a film projector, peering into its lens, the light flickering on his face. He has become projected. Merhige constructs a powerful metaphor, one that bears relation to Coppola’s.

One need only consider the question of where cinema resides to understand the potency of these vampiric metaphors. The film is spooled around a reel, but that is not where the audience sees it. Rather, light passes through frames separated by black space, pulsing temporally and temporarily on a screen. But even the screen is not a film’s permanent home, certainly not in the same way that a frame provides to a painting. The location of a film is in flux. A film is most alive while it is being projected, materialized in the darkness, simultaneously luminous and tenebrous, and that is when it exists between two worlds. Much the same is true of a vampire, its status is difficult to locate, let alone comprehend. To be undead is to be neither alive nor dead, but rather to exist in a strange twilight amid the two, unreal and corporeal at the same time.

To these long standing comparisons, another should be considered, the notion that — for a variety of reasons during the late nineteenth-century and the early twentieth-century — the cinema and vampirism both underwent various evolutions that impacted heavily on the ability of audiences to comprehend them, to make sense of them. The two regularly pose questions, but those questions are particularly pronounced when considering the period from 1895 to 1915. To explore this issue, the United States of America serves as an important case study, as it represents a geographical location in which these issues at times collide and at times converge. The protean vampire was never more unstable than in North America during those years.

Here the question is whether or not the undead walked on screen in early cinema. Consider Stacey Abbott’s monograph ‘Celluloid Vampires: Life after Death in the Modern World’ (2007), in which she writes the “vampire was absent from the early days of cinema” (p 44), after having already announced, “French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès brought forth the first celluloid vampire in his [1896] film ‘Le manoir du diable’ (1), but prior to describing the character in that same film as a “satanic figure” (p 50). It is not the apparent contradiction in these comments that is important, but instead the reasons for the confusion that exists in the archive and in the scholarship.

Nowhere are these issues more pronounced than in four moving pictures produced between 1896 and 1915, all of them screened in the United States of America: ‘Le manoir du diable’ (‘The Devil’s Castle’) (Georges Méliès, 1896), which modern critics have sometimes mistaken as a supernatural vampire film; ‘La légende du fantôme’ (‘Legend of a Ghost’) (Pathé Frères, 1908, aka ‘The Black Pearl’), which one North American critic in 1908 mistook as featuring a supernatural vampire; ‘The Vampire’, episode six of the serial ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ (Pathé, 1915), which invoked supernatural vampirism, but only to deploy it as a metaphor; and ‘Loïe Fuller’ (Pathé Frères, 1905), which featured what might well have been intended to be a supernatural vampire.

These case studies allow consideration of what the earliest vampire films were, or at least might have been, an important pursuit given scholarly interest in early cinema and horror studies. It is as easy to be as excited by the vampire in the early cinema as Coppola was. However, these four films also allow us to explore the paradoxical nature of vampires and early cinema. At times, both are murky, their images fleeting and indistinct, their stories needing to be read, but always at the risk of being misread.

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