A wicked skeleton is performing random and bizarre feats of illusion with several young ladies but his days are numbered! Strange and delightful film from Spanish director Segundo de Chomón.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
What does it take for a skeleton to get a little r and r, huh?
Segundo de Chomón, when he is mentioned at all, is generally written off as a copycat of Georges Méliès, the most famous screen magician. Now, I am certainly prepared to give Méliès as much love as he needs but I think Chomón deserves more serious consideration. We’ve already covered a more direct ripoff in Chomón’s An Excursion to the Moon but now we’re taking a look at the film that is probably the most famous work Chomón released, The Red Spectre.
I should note that I sometimes think that Chomón has an oatmeal raisin problem. You know when you bite into a cookie expecting chocolate chip and it’s oatmeal raisin? Yeah, that kind of thing. If one director’s work can be mistaken for another’s, then it’s easy to feel cheated. Méliès and Chomón worked in the same genre and Méliès is the more famous but Chomón has charms all his own. He certainly tended to make better use of depth in his compositions. (Though Méliès used it more effectively than many people may realize. The Dreyfus Affair is proof of that.) And, remember, painted sets and special effects were universally popular at the time, Méliès didn’t have a patent on them. So, please, come into this with an open mind and be prepared for some delightful nuttiness.
The red spectre of the title is a be-caped skeleton who spends his day burning up and resurrecting young ladies whom he apparently has mesmerized. He also builds a television set out of boxes and watches such hits as Comedian in Drag Plays with Dog. He’s a simple man, in other words. Much of the film is taken up with our skeleton playing with his toys stop action special effects, reversed film and double exposure. The showstopper is probably when he traps three ladies in bottles, carries them directly in front of the camera and fills the bottles. While closeups were an old hat by this time, this forward motion was reasonably uncommon and it makes the film more intimate and modern.
It’s all fun and games for the skeleton but the fly in the ointment is another illusionist, a woman in her own blue cape who keeps trying to steal his pitcher of enchanted whatsit and free his captives. What is it with some people? The red spectre keeps trying to get rid of the pest but her abilities are equal to his and the whole thing culminates in a faceoff. (Spoilers, obviously, but this thing is less than one reel long.) The woman triumphs, frees the young ladies and generally emerges the winner in every respect.
Obviously, I rather enjoyed the heroine coming out the winner of this battle and then enjoying her triumph by pulling the skeleton’s cloak from his bones, wrapping it around herself and walking off like the queen she is. Yes, please! I guess we have yet another answer to anyone who thinks that the silent era was full of screaming damsels and shrinking violets.
One of the big challenges in watching films made in the 1890s and 1900s is that the distance between the camera and the subjects is reflected in emotional distance between the subjects and the audience. It’s no coincidence that early film superstars like Florence Lawrence and Max Linder both had strong features that showed up well in the medium and long shots (mostly long) that were so common at the time. The Red Spectre is full of colorful and recognizable characters bursting with personality.
What particularly appeals to me about this film is that there seems to be a subtext, a strange, sitcom-like subtext. That’s not meant to denigrate this film, quite the opposite. I don’t know if it’s just me but I imagine our Red Spectre trying to relax after a long day by burning up some maidens and watching a little bit of television on his box wall but this annoying lady next door keeps bugging him. “Can’t this wait, Mildred?”
The performers have amusing chemistry and their fight to the finish seems like the culmination of a long line of disputes. The body language is emphatic but not particularly hammy and it matches the fantasy atmosphere that Chomón has created. The skeleton in particular is, for lack of a better word, cute. He reminds of a naughty little boy. But keep in mind, I also find spiders and rats and snakes to be adorable so I may have a slightly skewed perspective of cute.
Obviously, as you can see from the screenshots, this film looks great and is a charming showcase for stencil color. In case you were wondering, stencil color is exactly what it says on the tin. Hundreds of young women cut tiny stencils—one for every color on every frame—and then color was applied to the film one print at a time. It has a handcrafted quality and, alas, some modern viewers complain about it in the mistaken belief that it was computer color added by a current restoration.
The particular print used in this release was something of a miraculous discovery, purchased for $25 from a junkyard in Mexico. How did a French film get all the way over there? Well, French films were universally popular during this era and Mexicans were avid moviegoers, so the print’s international journey is hardly surprising.
The film was clearly popular, as supported by the fact that Pathé charged a whopping $123.76 to purchase a print of the picture, almost twice the $74.76 it was asking for Nurses’ Strike, which had a similar length. That’s about $3,400 in modern money for a half-reel of film. I should also note that the stencil color likely upped the price as well. Audiences of the era could not get enough color on the screen and hand-colored and stencil-colored French films were great favorites.
The Red Spectre is a remarkably amusing picture and a showcase for the top-of-the-line special effects technology of 1907. Its handmade quality adds greatly to its charm and its empowered heroine is sure to delight many present day viewers. But its greatest appeal, in my opinion, is its playfulness and the distinct personalities of its main characters. Do check it out if you get a chance.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of the Wild and Weird collection, which truly lives up to its name. The films are scored by the Alloy Orchestra for a more modern sound and they will likely delight anyone who was unaware of how strange silent movies could be.
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