One of my favorite blogs, Scott Ashlin’s 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, has finally posted some new reviews. I’m especially enjoying his observations on the silent French films of Louis Feuillade, especially the Fantomas series.
Ashlin, also known (I assume) as El Santo, starts with this:
It seems to me that if you go all the way back to the first two decades of the last century, when “horror cinema” was barely the faintest inkling of a concept, it is possible to discern certain specific national contributions to the latent genre. The Germans, most famously, were the first to make a habit of dealing unabashedly in the supernatural, populating films like The Student of Prague and Monster of Fate with genuine wizards, devils, and doppelgangers while their counterparts abroad generally preferred to explain such things away in the final scene. The Brits, as I’ve said elsewhere, displayed a fascination with true crime, mining the gory details of infamous real-life murder cases for subject matter. Squeamish and puritanical Americans hid at first behind the alibi of adapting classic literature, then enthusiastically contracted the same mania for spooky houses that already gripped the popular stage. But the French case is remarkable, because what they brought to the table impacted not just horror, but virtually all of genre film and fiction, and it began making its influence felt even before the rise of cinema as a medium of mass entertainment. What the French contributed was a character type, the obsessed, trauma-driven outcast seeking to remake the world (or at least his world) to his liking, regardless of what society has to say about it.
And further along:
During his two decades as a contract director-scenarist for the French arm of the cross-Channel Gaumont firm, Feuillade signed his name to over 600 motion pictures. The great majority of those were shorts, of course, but as the film industry grew beyond single-scene vignettes and one-reelers, so did he. Feuillade was in on the birth of the feature film as we know it, and he was a pioneer of serials as well. He had a hand in expanding the art form’s initially limited visual vocabulary, standing among the first to appreciate how much the camera could do even in a film with little or no special effects trickery. He was one of the true titans of early cinema, and one of the few whose mature movies anticipate the future more strongly than they invoke the past. But the main thing that matters for our present purposes is that he was the mastermind behind the weirdest and wickedest crime pictures of his age, in which the villains frequently remind one more of the Abominable Dr. Phibes than of Professor Moriarty.