Is this the first horror film? Mind you, it's only horror in a technical sense, if one considers the subject matter. In practice it's a pantomime that feels like a special effects demo reel.
Just to set the scene, we're talking about a fixed camera pointing at a stage set, dressed to look like a castle. It's silent, obviously, but I've seen references to a hand-coloured version with a bit of red (e.g. the king's outfit). The legally downloadable one from the Internet Archive was black-and-white, though. It looks pretty good, actually. It's less ambitious than, say, A Voyage to the Moon
, but this gives it more coherence.
Today it feels less like a story than Melies presumably intended, but theoretically it's all there. We have characters, a villain, a denoument and so on. No intertitles, though, so we've no idea who anyone is. We begin with a bat flying around a castle, which has been achieved with a puppet just like the ones that Hammer would be using seventy years later for their own vampire bats. Melies's is bigger, mind you. It even looks better than Hammer's!
This bat then transforms into Melies himself in a doublet, tights and elf pixie boots. He also has a sword and the most amazing hair. It's like Davy Crockett's "raccoon nailed to his head" hat, except that it's hair. He also has a beard to match. This is either Mephistopheles or a vampire (take your pick) and if the latter, he's one of the weirdest screen vampires you've ever seen. I love the wacky imagery in silent horror films.
Melies then starts making things appear and disappear. A lot. This is the visual effects demo reel I was talking about, in which the camera will shoot a short sequence before the cameraman pauses it briefly for actors and props to be moved on or off the set. It's a simple trick and Melies doesn't really have anything else, but for a three-minute film, that's enough. What's more, he does it very well and finds some nice touches with it. One peculiarity is that there's almost always at least one other actor on-screen when something appears or disappears, yet Melies pulls it off so slickly that you'd think he'd done it with CGI or frame splicing or something. He didn't, of course. Closer examination reveals that every such cut takes place when the other actors are momentarily holding a dramatic pose. They're brief and naturally done, though, plus subtle enough that it might take you a second viewing to notice them.
The rolling man disappearance though is cool enough that I rewound for a closer look. There's also a bit where people bump into the set and the entire castle slants sideways.
The whole film's like that. Two cavaliers show up and Melies teases them with his magic, but is eventually vanquished by a big crucifix. This works whether he's the devil or Dracula. However it also feels less like a dramatic finale than you'd think, because the whole thing's just a bang-bang-bang of special effects and this is effectively just another one.
It's fun! It's playing with horror imagery (e.g. the skeleton), but it's meant to amuse. It's also blindingly fast, blasting along at a pace to put Looney Tunes to shame. I also respect its attempt to tell a story, which in its fundamentals is perfectly good and it's not hardly Melies's fault that his efforts as such don't easily translate 120 years later. It just takes a bit of effort to get into a head space that can interpret what you're watching as had been intended, as opposed to the trivial adjustments required to watch a silent film from the 1920s. I'd recommend it. Well worth three minutes of your time, if only to watch from a technical point of view and admire what Melies is doing.