The Close Ups of Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House

Note: This is the forty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1908 film, THE HAUNTED HOUSE, directed by Segundo de Chomón.

Segundo de Chomón was and is often dubbed the “Spanish Méliès” because of his visual style rooted just as deeply in the French stage tradition of the féerie. This moniker is perhaps fitting also because, of all the imitators of Georges Méliès, only de Chomón could be mentioned in the same breath as the first master of movie magic. At the same time, however, the comparison may do de Chomón a disservice, especially as his interpretation of féerie diverged from Méliès’ (by 1908) rote style.

De Chomón may have begun his career a mere copycat of Méliès (and would swerve back in the direction with films like EXCURSION TO THE MOON [1908]), but de Chomón has always felt visually darker to me. No other part of his career encapsulates this feeling better than his peak, in 1908, due to a handful of releases. The best of them was THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1908). Also known as THE HOUSE OF GHOSTS, THE WITCH HOUSE, and LA MAISON ENSORCELÉE, THE HAUNTED HOUSE represents one of de Chomón’s vital differences from Méliès: he was willing to move the camera closer to his actors and the action.

In this way, de Chomón achieves a greater intimacy. And in a film like THE HAUNTED HOUSE, that intimacy imparts a bizarre morbidity, a macabre “spookiness” that permeates all-ages Halloween tropes. That doesn’t make THE HAUNTED HOUSE any less fun; in fact, it makes it more fun. THE HAUNTED HOUSE isn’t scary, but it’s kind of creepy, and that’s thrilling in its own right.

One of de Chomón’s other important distinctions is his use of what can be called more “blatant” uses of stop-motion animation, in that it’s used to craft whole scenes and events rather than shield a sudden transformation as Méliès often did. THE HAUNTED HOUSE has this in spades, beginning with the early shot of a house. A group, battered by a storm, attempt to take refuge in the spooky abode. As they approach, a couple of witches fly through the corner of the screen, and some spindly trees wave about. This shot isn’t necessarily the film’s first close up, but I think the size of the face that suddenly appears on the house distinguishes itself from the other stage bound féerie films; there’s a good amount of detail on the personified building.

As the film progresses, the travelers are harried by all kinds of paranormal activity, including the sudden appearance of a pretty nasty looking witch in a painting. The next close up, however, appears as the trio attempts to eat. In the longest uninterrupted scene of the six minute film, the food and utensils move around and prepare food. It’s an impressive sequence of stop-motion animation, especially considering its length in 1908. And it’s actually kind of helpful for the three travelers!

The next close up shot shows the tea pouring itself. Up to know, it was clear the trio weren’t exactly the most normal looking people; their make up is not dissimilar to clowns’, and indeed, their appearance isn’t dissimilar to that of the Whos in DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (2000).

When they peer into frame to marvel at the magical tea set, however, the travelers look positively freakish. The man closest to the camera looks like Quasimodo, the woman has owl-eye make up on, and the other man’s hair is reminiscent of Kevin Nealon’s character in LITTLE NICKY (2000). You know, “Tit-Head the Gatekeeper.”

This isn’t to cast judgement on the actors, of course. De Chomón set out to make a visually strange film, and that applied to the movie’s “heroes.” It all contributes to the strange reality the film portrays, a sort of playful darkness and macabre fun which foreshadowed the aesthetic of early Tim Burton films, for example.

THE HAUNTED HOUSE continues with some fun tricks as the house tilts back and forth, but its penultimate shot (and its final close up) is the film’s most striking. The witch from earlier, and presumably the one propagating all the high jinks, appears, gigantically, from a wall of the house, and snatches up the trio cowering underneath a blanket. As with the trio, his or her make up is strange, with bushy eyebrows and long, stringy hair cascading from the side of a balding head.

The trio ends up waking up underneath their blanket out in the woods, so THE HAUNTED HOUSE didn’t go as dark as it could have, or indeed, as Méliès did on occasion. But de Chomón’s use of close ups ends up imparting more of a sense of menace, or the bizarre, or spooky fun, or however THE HAUNTED HOUSE’s content may affect you. De Chomón was evolving his sense of style and film language was improving because of it, not to mention the “haunted house” horror sub-genre could be traced back to, fittingly, THE HAUNTED HOUSE. De Chomón was stepping up his game just as Méliès’ star was dimming, and although de Chomón only appears on this list once more (and Méliès twice), he established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers from the 1900s with his output at the end of the decade.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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