The Infernal Cauldron Is a Fun, Satanic Dark Comedy
Note: This is the twenty-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1903 film, THE INFERNAL CAULDRON, directed by Georges Méliès.
Just a couple weeks ago, I wrote about Méliès’ fascination with the figure of Satan, especially when it comes to THE TREASURES OF SATAN (1902), and how he often used the Devil as cutting satire and sociopolitical commentary. Well, THE INFERNAL CAULDRON (1903) certainly stars Beelzebub, but it follows in perhaps the more expected tradition of the “lesser” class of Méliès’ extremely brief trick films.
As far as I interpret it, THE INFERNAL CAULDRON has a lot less to do with commentary on religious control and the struggle for prosperity and a lot more to do with putting the horrible actions of evil demons to screen. Of course, as with all film, there is still a “lesson” or greater idea to be pulled from the latter, but THE INFERNAL CAULDRON is a novelty film through and through, unlike some of Méliès’ “deeper” films like A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) or THE DREYFUS AFFAIR (1899). The difference with his other trick films is that the novelty so directly lies on extremely morbid humor. It’s wickedly delightful.
I guess I should address the fact that there is one incredibly important film that is generally cited as the most impressive and greatest movie of 1903, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (I’ll get to it), and so far I’ve betrayed my Méliès bias by including two rarely talked about films of his before that landmark, important film. I’m sure no one actually cares, but my point here is that Méliès’ incredibly over-the-top, féerie stylings were still so much more entertaining than his contemporaries.
His dominance over my list/essays will thin as more “realistic” film styles were becoming refined and more complex, but in the meantime, movies like THE INFERNAL CAULDRON were still entertaining with their ridiculous visuals, performances, and events. As familiar as Méliès’ work can get, it’s a testament to his incredible creativity and intelligence that there’s something interesting to be found in even the most “conventional” and expected of his films.
And that’s the case with THE INFERNAL CAULDRON. As mentioned, it’s an incredibly short trick film with Satan; Méliès had done a number of those already. But THE INFERNAL CAULDRON ratcheted up the evil deeds the Devil invariably committed in those other films and made them the centerpiece. The entire film just shows Satan and his impish minions gleefully throwing three humans into a cauldron as they (the victims) beg and grovel for their lives. As with the finale of THE TREASURES OF SATAN, it’s a little uncomfortable seeing the intensity of Satan’s pleasure in the face of the desperation of his prisoners…but it’s also kind of funny?
It’s played so ecstatically that it’s hard not to be amused, and the ghosts of the victims’ final revenge, essentially harrowing Satan until he dives into the cauldron himself, is morbidly satisfying. The ghosts themselves are also rendered in much better ghostly detail than previous Méliès films. They don’t look just like the effects of double exposure somehow, although the technique was definitely utilized; it’s difficult to explain (so watch the movie below), but the ghosts look like they’re actually moving through the filmic space rather than laid on top via a camera/film trick.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Méliès started using a special camera that used two lenses and two reels in order to produce two negatives of the film. He was facing incredibly piracy in foreign markets, and wanted to distribute his films officially. In any event, researchers in the 21st century realized this unique means of filming meant 3D films could essentially be created by combining the two negatives. Lobster Films presented THE INFERNAL CAULDRON and THE ORACLE OF DELPHI (1903) in 3D in 2010, lending yet another interesting footnote to otherwise “ordinary” Méliès films. That being said, this wouldn’t really affect the normal, non-3D print version of the film, and certainly not just the ghost effect. Regardless, Méliès’ visual effects, and the art style of the hellish chamber in which the bizarre Satan and his minions do their sacrificing, lend a perfect visual framing for the macabre events of the film. It feels playful and malicious at the same time.
THE INFERNAL CAULDRON isn’t one of the greatest films in the Méliès film canon, but it’s certainly one of my favorites of 1903. Its incredibly dark humor and artistic decadence showcase an evolution of Méliès’ short trick film style, even as his longer epics were receiving more and more attention. The hand-tinted greens of the devils and reds of the flame also provide incredible visual contrast that is hard to resist among some of the “plainer” films of the era.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.