THE RED SPECTRE is one of the most impressive trick films, co-produced by Segundo de Chomon and Ferdinand Zecca, in the early years of the 20th century. Released by Pathé and dating from 1908, the film is a visual feast of images that would become iconic in the horror film genre over the following years.
In a fiery pit, a coffin stands itself on end, from which emerges the horrific figure of the Red Spectre, a skeletal figure with horns and cape. The sight of the coffin standing itself on end immediately recalls some of the fantastic stop-motion shots in Muranau’s NOSFERATU. The sides of the cave open up, revealing a small stage area where the Red Spectre uses a wand to conjure up five beautiful women to dance for him. They suddenly transform into small balls of fire that dance through the air. Next, he conjures up two urns in which burn two great flames that are transformed into women. Covering the urns with black tarp, he lays one of the women out across the urns, wrapping her in the tarp. Finally, he causes her to levitate and then disappear. He does this with the second woman, as well.
For his next impressive trick, the Spectre brings out three glass jars on a table, close to the view of the camera, in which three small women appear. This recalls similar imagery in films like HOMUNCULUS and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Next, he brings out a small screen emblazoned with the Pathé cockerel, and as he slowly opens each portion of the screen, parts of the image of a woman holding a flower are revealed.
He then conjures up another screen showing three dancing women, then a closeup of one of the girls, and finally a grotesque comic couple in exaggerated makeup. After making the screen disappear completely, he begins stacking cube-shaped objects which arrange themselves into a stack against which is projected an image of a woman and a dog. Finally, he conjures up a whole chorus of dancing girls, one of whom he tries to lead away under his cape, but who turns the tables on him by pouring a jug of water on him, causing the Red Spectre to disintegrate. Standing over his skeleton, she takes his cape, putting it around herself, and descends into the fiery cave.
By 1908, trick filmmakers like de Chomon had discovered extremely sophisticated means of pulling off the kind of trick effects that impressed audiences so much. While technically a narrative film, compared with the narratives that were being told by films from the Edison Company in the US, for instance, THE RED SPECTRE hearkens back to the Melies tradition of spectacle. Pathé, of course, was known for the high quality of its trick films, and this is perhaps the finest example. Although by 1908 the rise of Nickelodeons in the US provided a place for films to be shown along with other films in a single sitting, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a film like this one being shown in a tent at a carnival or fairground. Certainly in Europe, where the choice of screening venues of films remained a bit more diverse throughout the first decade of the 20th century, it’s not at all difficult to imagine this film as just one more part of an evening’s entertainment; visitors to a fair-ground moving from one show to the other, perhaps a live performer, followed by a ride, followed by this incredible piece of visual trickery – all part of the larger visual arts canvas open to audiences of a century ago.