How many films remain famous or indeed infamous nearly ninety years after their original release? Perhaps even more importantly it might be asked how many such films remain accessible or of interest to the average viewer than existing merely as curio pieces for cineastes and academics? The answer to the first question is ‘few’, and the answer to the second question is ‘even fewer’. Step forward then “HÃ¤xan: Witchcraft through the Ages”, a film which has incredibly somehow managed to retain the same sinister aura of controversy and curiosity with which it was greeted both when originally released back in 1922 and during its 1968 redux release – no small feat for a silent foreign language production. As such, its billing as ‘the first cult movie’ is actually not far off, and this new Tartan DVD release, which comes complete with the two different versions of the film, comes as a great opportunity for all fans of weird cinema to acquaint themselves with an enduring classic.
The Danish film, directed by Benjamin Christensen was inspired by the notorious bible of medieval inquisitors and witch hunters, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, mining its pages for tales of devils and evil magic. The film takes the form of a documentary split into seven chapters, or roughly four parts, with the first exploring representations of hell and witchcraft in early art, the second the supposed ways in which Satan (here played by the director himself) lured souls to damnation, and the third the methods of the inquisition. Interestingly, the final part of the film investigates then-modern interpretations and explanations of witchcraft, seeking parallels between the past and present.
To be fair, it’s a little hard to take “HÃ¤xan: Witchcraft through the Ages” too seriously as a documentary in the sense viewers will be used to, since most of Christensen’s material is based upon vague sources, and since he tends to sit on the fence, presenting a rather muddled message, contradicting himself and never really clarifying his stance, in particular as to whether the tortures of the inquisition were justified. However, this does not detract from the film’s fascination or entertainment value in the least, as it works best through the series of re-enactments which he uses to illustrate his many devilish anecdotes. These cover all kinds of macabre subjects, and feature some inventively gruesome imagery which would certainly have been considered scandalous at the time, including dead babies being used for spell ingredients, possessed nuns, witches kissing the devil’s rather large behind and much, much more. These scenes are very well directed and show a great imagination and visual flair, with some impressively creepy use of lighting, colour tinting and make up for the various demons and devils. Genre fans will certainly recognise imagery which has been copied endlessly through the years, and the film certainly stands as a great example of early, sensationalistic horror. Although it is a little slow moving in places, the film is ghoulishly captivating throughout and incredibly, despite its age it has certainly stood the test of time, remaining the definitive work on the subject and still being accessible enough to be enjoyed by modern viewers.
This new DVD release includes two new soundtracks, the first by composer Geoff Smith performed on hammered dulcimer and the second by Bronnt Industries Kapital, a creepy, ambient electronic score which makes the film even more of a genre viewing experience (although the viewer is probably best served by switching between the two to suit differing mood of scenes). Along with the original 104 minute cut of the film, which comes complete with English subtitled Danish inter-titles, is included the 1968 re-release, shortened to 76 minutes, narrated by cult author William Burroughs and with a jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty. This more recent version, which is wholly in black and white, is understandably faster moving, and thanks to the soundtrack makes it somewhat more offbeat in tone, though viewers are advised to first watch the superior original for the full experience.
Benjamin Christensen (director) / Benjamin Christensen (screenplay)
CAST: Maren Pedersen … Heksen/The Witch
Clara Pontoppidan … Nonne/Nun
Elith Pio … Heksedommer/Witch Judge (The Young Monk)
Oscar Stribolt … Graabroder/Doctor (The Fat Monk)
Tora Teje … En hysterisk kvinde/Modern Hysteric