Set against an exotic backdrop of pyramids, the Nile, and a great Sphinx, Georges Méliès' The Monster (Le Monstre) seems, at first glance, to be a typical Méliès magic film in which a bearded magician demonstrates a series of tricks with an animated skeleton in front of a single well-dressed spectator. The effects are similar to those used in Melies films ranging from The Vanishing Lady (1896) to The Infernal Cauldron (1903), and in many ways this is a rare instance of a Méliès film in which the magic tricks are actually upstaged by the elaborate scenic backdrop.
There might be a bit more to The Monster than a series of one-after-another cinema tricks, however. The entry for the film in the IMDB includes a surprisingly detailed summary taken from a 1903 Lubin Catalog. This summary closely matches the synopsis for the film in John Frazer's Artificially Arranged Scenes. According to the synopsis:
"An Egyptian prince has lost his beloved wife and he has sought a dervish who dwells at the base of the sphinx. The prince promises him a vast fortune if the dervish will only give him the opportunity of gazing once more upon the features of his wife. The dervish accepts the offer. He brings in from a neighboring tomb the receptacle containing the remains of the princess. He opens it and removes the skeleton, which he places upon the ground close beside him. Then, turning to the moon and raising his arms outstretched toward it, he invokes the moon to give back life to her who is no more. The skeleton begins to move about, becomes animated, and arises. The dervish puts it upon a bench and covers it with a white linen; a masque conceals its ghostly face. At a second invocation the skeleton begins again to move, arises, and performs a weird dance. In performing its contortions it partly disappears in the ground. While performing its feats it increases gradually in size, its neck assuming enormous proportions, much to the horror of the prince, who fails to see in this grotesque character the wife whom he has lost. The dance ceases. The dervish throws a veil over the hideous creature. Then appear the real princess as she was when her husband possessed her. The prince darts forward to take her into his arms to give her a last kiss, but the dervish stops him, wraps the young lady in the veil and throws her into the arms of the prince. When he removes the veil he finds only the skeleton of his former wife. The vision has disappeared, and the princess has returned to dust. The dervish withdraws, and the prince pursues him with his threats and curses."
If The Monster's magician is actually a dervish, the spectator is actually a prince, and the skeleton/specter/maiden is actually the prince's deceased wife, then the ending of the film is surprisingly disturbing for a Méliès film. It's one thing to toss a skeleton to someone as part of a magic trick, but to toss someone the skeleton of their diseased spouse is just cruel. Considering the specific details that Frazer lists in his summary, it seems possible that Méliès' film was inspired by a previous story or folktale. By the time he filmed The Monster, Méliès had already made a version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1898), and adapted the tale of Bluebeard (1901). The elaborate near-epic production of Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) was probably started before work on The Monster began. The details and plot of The Monster would not seem out of place in the sort of fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm had popularized or in other folk tales from around the world. But "The Monster" is not a common name for a specific tale, and if there's a folk tale or fairy tale that features a Dervish, the Nile, and a Prince's departed wife, it's probably an extremely obscure story.
It's also possible that the details in the Lubin Catalog synopsis were embellisments to the completed film, possibly written by someone who had no role in the film's production.
The music for this video is from Louis Ganne's "Extase" ("Ecstacy") performend by the Tollefsen Trio. The unedited 24-bit wav file that was used for this video was captured from a 1911 wax cylinder recording as part of the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Loiuis Ganne (1862-1923) was a French composer who was active between 1897-1901. This music is not related to the Méliès film, but seems to be a reasonably appropriate match to the tone and style of this Méliès film.
Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of George Melies (John Frazer, 1979, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston).
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