The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

No rating due to partially lost film

In a nutshell: This 1918 short by stop-motion wizard Willis O’Brien is probably the first film to describe time travel, and is a showcase for O’Brien’s marvellous stop-motion dinosaurs. 

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. 1918, USA. Written & directed by Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Starring Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Stop-motion animation my Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Produced by Herbert M. Dawley (falsely credited as writer, director and animator as well). IMDb score: 5.9

Promo still from the film.

Promo still from the film.

I usually don’t review short films when we start getting into the realm close to 1920, but I allow myself a few exceptions when pioneering concepts, themes or techniques are involved. Such a film is 1918/1919 short The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. It is considered by many to be the first film to deal with time travel, and one of the first where special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong) combined live action with stop-motion photography. The first one was The Puzzling Billboard (1917), where a goat eats a billboard at the end of the film. It is also essentially the first film to depict a time machine (although that is debatable). O’Brien also wrote and directed the The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and it was produced by Herbert M. Dawley, who also played the lead as Uncle Jack Holmes. Willis O’Brien plays the ghost of Mad Dick.

The plot goes like this: Uncle Jack decides to entertain his visiting nephews with a story of the time he and his buddy Joe went out hiking in the mountains, where he asked Joe to remove his clothes and pose as a faun, while they were looking for a mad dick. Uhum, no wait, is this the right movie? Yes it is. But unfortunately there will be no frisky outdoorsy male bonding like that, since Joe decides that the skeeters are too thick for playing fauns and faeries. Since I am not North American, I had to use Google to find out that the phrase ”skeeters are too thick” means that there are too many mosquitoes. Uncle Jack is also a painter, which might explain the odd request. And they are about to visit a deserted cabin once inhabited by a hermit called Mad Dick. They find the old cabin all right, but it is locked and deserted, as could be expected. Before going to bed, Joe recalls how he once saw old Mad Dick standing on a hill, looking through a strange instrument ”like a telescope”, gazing towards Slumber Mountain.

1918 poster

1918 poster

In the middle of the night Jack is awakened by the call of the ghost of Mad Dick, who leads him to the cabin, where he finds the strange instrument. Mad Dick (or the translucent image that is left of him) leads Jack to a hill and has him gaze through the binoculars. To his amazement Jack gazes millions of years back in time and sees dinosaurs grazing, fighting and feeding. Suddenly he is transported into this ancient world, where he is just about to be eaten by a T-Rex – when he awakes outside his tent. It was all a dream …

The film itself in surrounded by a host of controversies and rumours. First of all, the original film was between 35 and 40 minutes long, but for reasons unknown Dawley cut it down to a mere 11 minutes, which was how it was shown in cinemas. A few fragments of the original have been found, and edited into a 19 minute film, which is available online. It is also unclear whether it was released in 1918 or 1919, but since both Wikipedia and IMDb put it at 1918, I am prone to go with that.

Willis O’Brien, who created the groundbreaking dinosaur effects, was not credited for any involvement in the making of the film. Although O’Brien was already a noted stop-motion artist, Dawley claimed that he had both directed the film and created the stop-motion animation. He even tried to patent the technique of stop-motion animation, although O’Brien had used the technique in 11 short films prior to this one, including a few with dinosaurs. In fact, the first film he ever made, in 1915 (The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy – very funny btw, recommended), had stop-motion animated cave men and dinosaurs. Dawley tried to sue O’Brien for patent breach in 1925 when he did the dinosaur work for the blockbuster The Lost World, but no trial was ever held.

Still from O'Brien's first dinosaur film from 1915.

Still from O’Brien’s first dinosaur film from 1915.

Anyway – the film itself is not much of a masterpiece, partly due to its episodic nature, but the stop-motion animation and the dinosaur puppets are masterfully made. O’Brien had had some practice with the technique by now, and you can see a very clear improvement from the very crude 1915 dinosaur film to this one. The motions are still a bit jerky, and not nearly as fluid and naturalistic as those he achieved with The Lost World and King Kong, but one still marvels at the way he controls the bodies of the dinosaurs, and gives them personality, rather than just making rigid monsters. Especially impressive is a close-up sequence of a Triceratops eating. The ways the animal’s jaws move in a circular motion, the hint of a tongue, the movement of the legs and the body when it shifts its weight – it looks big and heavy, its skin wrinkles. Absolutely fabulous. And all just made on a tiny budget of 3 000 dollars (the whole film!). It grossed 100 000 dollars at the box office, most of which went to Dawley.

The film is if course inspired by the literary depictions of lost worlds inhabited by pre-historic creatures, first introduced by French author Jules Verne in A Trip to the Center of the Earth (1864). In this book we only meet aquatic dinos, though, and the ultimate inspiration for dinosaur-filled lost worlds comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (yes, the Sherlock Holmes dude) 1912 novel, appropriately named The Lost World. The genre was further popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ (yes, the Tarzan dude) Pellucidar series, starting with At the Earth’s Core from 1914. The film is not an adaptation of either novel, though.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. 1918, USA. Written & directed by Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Starring Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Stop-motion animation my Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Produced by Herbert M. Dawley (falsely credited as writer, director and animator as well).

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3 thoughts on “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

  1. Pingback: Sziriusz | Scifist

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