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no speaking of devils in Haxan

October 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages
cast: Benjamin Christensen, Maren Pederson, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, and Oscar Stribolt

director: Benjamin Christensen

104 minutes (15) 1922
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
It is 30 years since the gatefold image of the sabat from Benjamin Christensen's Häxan first obscenely exposed itself to me in frontispiece pages of a large book. For some time it was the only image to go with. For Häxan and a number of films (The Hypnotic Eye, The Horror Of Malformed Men, and Skeleton Ship) it was often the case that all I had to go on is a single shot, a one-25th frame image or a press still from which I had to dig out every possible detail and try to correspond it with the title, feeding my imagination to 'complete' the movie. A beautiful blonde with an axe in her skull is in some way supposed to relate the suddenly unfamiliar story of The Black Cat. Häxan, more so than those other films, came with a reputation and other images from the film eventually made their way to me, each one contributing to the convincing promise of unseen horrors and a genuine nightmare to come. Coming eight years before Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, I appointed the later film its closest tonal relative and bumped up expectations of the earlier film further. This is dangerous to the unfamiliar film, a fear of over-expectation and exploding disappointments when the movie is finally met. I might in advance, imagine the film too perfect with not a negative word said against it.

For the uninformed, Häxan was banned in the UK until Antony Balch picked up the film for distribution in 1968, for which he shortened the running time without any loss to the grotesque content. He also added a narration by super-drawl himself, William S. Burroughs. The film was re-titled Witchcraft Through the Ages, and both versions of the film are included on this DVD package from Tartan. Three decades of waiting to see this has over-prepared me for the viewing. Though I knew the film to be a documentary dramatisation it was the documentary aspect that came up most forthrightly and bit me on the ass. There is no denying the power and ingenuity of many of the images and sequences in Häxan but, as an early silent documentary, it brings a few innocent problems.

We must wade through inter-titles (and, in this case, subtitles too), which the overly considerate filmmaker has observed the viewer needs ample time to read. The images are by now over-familiar coming as they have done since in innumerable books on witchcraft that act as starter packs on witchcraft and devilry. Woodcuts and paintings from the middle ages and renaissance, depicting depraved acts and monstrous creatures, much is now very familiar. The director includes a pointing stick to denote discussed details and it begins to feel like a primary school lesson in Burkittsville. Before we get to this little iconographical lecture, the director has also taken time to introduce himself and single out certain crew for especial consideration and appreciation. It is only 11 minutes before the 'reconstructions' begin but it feels like longer and the original musical score is sweeping but of a classical ordinariness. Reconstruction is the word as the film fearlessly uses that frightening ancient art for inspiration, a grimy world of harridans and their murky practices. One witch returns to a shared hovel with the dismembered decaying arm of a robber taken from a gallows corpse.

The film worries us with a cavalcade of denizens flaunting their ugly bodies, frolicking with humans both haggard and beautiful. In one representation we see a drunk taunting a witch, but he's cursed back upon with a supernatural lockjaw. Benjamin Christensen casts himself as a splendid Satan, flicking his tongue, his skin dappled, his fingers extended, a wanton, lustful, vulgar despoiler of innocence. A sabat depicting a baby slaughtered, and a devil receiving kiss after kiss on his anus, are only two of the reasons why this film garnered the trouble it did and would still have astounded in 1968.

Twice the devil is seen thrashing with a butter churn in a hysterical, psychopathic and metaphorical act of onanism. The film brims, and the problem is that no matter how effective it is often times there are shots that shriek too disappointingly of a bum trick. A pantomime skeleton horse that is merely a skull and a sheet or people in cumbersome dog and cat people costumes make one flinch with their tawdriness and the obsidian mood is broken. As the film approaches the end it deserts the medieval ghastliness to take the previously exhibited behaviour and place it now in a modern medical and psychological context. It makes for an inglorious anticlimax. Generally, the film is superbly cast, with considerable efforts also placed on set design and props. If the first viewing had its disappointments them then the film had a second shot at addressing this as I turned my attentions to the 1968 refurbishment.

Witchcraft Through the Ages initially improves on the film as the original footage is shorn of Christensen's gushing crew accolades, the new cut dutifully acknowledging cast and crew in art deco titles. As they run, Burroughs catchily recites: "Lock them out and bar the door, lock them out for ever more, windows, nook, cranny, door... lock them out for ever more." The narration dispenses with the now unnecessary lecture inter-titles reducing the time nicely at the front of the film allowing us sooner access to the action. The musical score on this version is jazz orientated, composed by Daniel Humair.

Humair is primarily, and unfortunately, a percussionist - which, at times, despite having been scored for a quintet, shows too often in the drum and beat soundtrack. When it is not a tortured variation on easy listening it is a chaotic drum attack. More effectively the musicians toy with piano strings and rap furiously on the rims of tin drums during the more nightmarish scenes. Burroughs often repeats the original inter-title cards content and at other times alters the text to effect. At other times it is less successfully as his delivery lends it a comic intonation as when reporting how the church "despatches judges through all Krissendoorm!" Towards the end it sounds like a DVD commentary where the participant is forgetting himself and losing the will to live. "And that's how you'll burn too, young woman!" he adds at one point, sounding not unlike Criswell.

Encountering the images a second time I was allowing myself to dismiss my initial disappointment and I knew now to paradoxically relax into the horrors of this festival of freakiness. I learned also to pay less attention to the opening and close. Balch did a good job but it was still far from perfect. My advice to first time H�xan viewers, if using this DVD release, that you do so using the long form original with the newly recorded soundtrack by Brontt Industries Kapital, experimental artistes from the UK or the Geoff Smith soundtrack (included in Dolby digital 2.0). On its own the Brontt Industries Kapital's score is pure hum and tinnitus, but coupled with the grave images of Häxan it is an un-distilled, unearthly accompaniment that adds to the nightmarish quality the older soundtrack (the original Danish premiere soundtrack is available on Dolby digital 5.0). The Geoff Smith is a pricklier score, simple harpsichord and drum, but generally an uncanny and well judged accompaniment to the images. It works at best during the ride to the sabat, spiking during the bleeding of the baby. Unlike the other soundtrack author's Smith decides against taking advantage of the first appearance of Christensen's proud Satan at the lectern, and whatever he intended to convey in the silence is at a loss to me. It fails the scene. Unlike Balch's Witchcraft Through The Ages which is presented in black and white, as part of the film's restoration by the Swedish Film Institute Häxan is presented in beautiful tints.

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