Noch pered Rozhdestvom/The Night Before Christmas (1913)

This 41-minute silent film is based on a 19th-century novel by Nikolai Gogol and directed by the legendary stop-motion pioneer, Ladislaw Starewicz. It's the first adaptation of this work - expect a review of the 1961 version, titled "Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka," soon, but for now let's focus on the 1913 adaptation, which is... well... it's bonkers.

Let me jump right into the plot. The movie starts by introducing us to Solokha, the witch, and her demonic lover. Apparently, the book makes it clear this is a devil, rather than THE Devil, but it was a bit ambiguous in the movie (there's a decent chance that might be due to the translation, though). At any rate, they climb up Solokha's chimney, fly around on her broom, and briefly steal the moon before returning to her home.

Around this time, Solokha's son, Vakula, is trying to convince Oksana to marry him. She dismisses the idea but mockingly offers him a chance: if he can bring her the Tsar's daughter's shoes, she vows to marry him. So naturally he sets off to find the Devil, not realizing his mother's having an affair with him.

Before anything can happen between Solokha and said Devil, there's a knock on her window: another of her lovers is stopping by. Solokha quickly hides the Devil in a sack and lets the man in. Then another guy shows up, so Solokha hides this man in another sack. This repeats a few times until her son shows up and finds his mother in a room with a bunch of sacks. When Solokha steps out to go for a walk with yet another lover, Vakula decides he should probably get all these sacks down to his business (it's not clear what he thinks is inside). He seems to be supernaturally strong, so he manages to lift them all, but eventually he drops a few on the way, coincidentally retaining the one holding The Devil.

The others are all found by villagers who laugh at the men's awkward misfortune. Vakula, however, goes to visit a sorcerer, reasoning he'll be able to tell him where to find the Devil. The sorcerer tells him he won't have to search far, since he's got the Devil on his back, and Vakula sets out to work through this difficult riddle. Eventually, the Devil gets out, Vakula wrestles him into submission, and he gets the Devil to fly him to the Tsar's palace, where he's mistaken for a diplomat and given the shoes he's after.

Back in town, a rumor's circulated that Vakula drowned. This gets back to Oksana, who regrets how she treated him. Vakula returns, beats the Devil, then goes to give the shoes to Oksana, who says she doesn't need the shoes to marry him.

As a movie, this is somewhat mixed. It's a bit overlong, and some of the effects are unrefined (though I like how the stolen moon looks, and there's a sequence where the Devil shrinks via stop-motion that's fantastic, which shouldn't be surprising - Starewicz is one of the artists who pioneered the technique. The real selling point for this, though, is just how utterly bizarre the whole thing is from a modern standpoint. This is about as far as you can get from our concept of Christmas, and yet it's absolutely a Christmas movie.

In addition to being explicitly set on Christmas Eve, it ties in with centuries of folklore around midwinter. Christmas has long been associated with witches, demons, and magic, and this represents a playful spin on those ideas. This is fantasy comedy, not horror, mind you: aside from the innuendo, it's completely kid-safe, assuming you're not bothered by the idea of the Devil - or a devil - portrayed as a comical and ultimately harmless character.

I can't say I loved the movie outside of the experience of discovering it, but for me that was enough. This is a ridiculous, silly fantasy which allows the Devil to be comic relief and a sexually promiscious witch to be likeable. Solokha is portrayed as comical, like everyone else, but the narrative neither paints her as evil, nor does it punish her for living a life she enjoys. That's certainly not something I can say for most American movies of the past [checks notes] twelve decades.

All that said, it's nowhere near as impressive an experience as Starewicz's animated Christmas productions. We'll get to those eventually, as well.