Saturday, August 09, 2014

Haxan (1922)

Silent horror film from Denmark that has established something of a cult following over the years, about the history and practice of witchcraft in the middle ages. Astonishing direction by Benjamin Christensen demonstrates a singular visual style, bringing a painterly quality to the lighting through heavy use of shadows and high-contrast effects to achieve some indelible imagery. In its depiction of witchcraft and Satanic rituals, the film retains its power to unsettle and shock, with a liberal of amount of nudity and disturbing images such as demons draining the blood out of an infant before tossing it into a cauldron, and the witches lining up and kissing the devil's bare ass. Christensen himself plays Satan as a hideous, scaly, horned creature with a perpetually protruding and lascivious tongue. The various demonic creatures, with their grotesque masks and makeup, are especially horrifying in their design. There are some interesting depictions of the witches' rites and rituals, and the medieval witch hunts and instruments of torture used to extract confessions from them. Christensen ends his historical survey with an epilogue that offers hysteria as an explanation of supposed cases of demonic possession in the modern era, drawing a comparison between the persecution of the mentally ill with the persecution of accused witches in medieval times.

However, due to Christensen's approach to the material, the film does suffer from pacing and structural issues. It contains a number of truly memorable images, some of them among the most powerful and evocative from the entire silent era, but too many scenes tend to drag, especially when focusing on the minutiae of certain historical details, and overall the film feels like less than the sum of its parts.

Re-released in 1968 in a special sound version titled WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, with an effective modern jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs.

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