Witchcraft Through the Ages

[a.k.a. Haxan]
Dir: Benjamin Christensen
Star: Elisabeth Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

1922 wasn't a bad year for Euro-horror, bringing us Nosferatu and Dr. Mabuse, as well as this, originally released as a silent film, Haxan. A product of Sweden, it was re-released under the new title in the late 60's, with a jazz score and narration by William Burroughs to replace the lengthy intertitles [largely explaining why the running time became only 76 minutes, rather than the 104 of the original]. It probably counts as among the first ever "documentaries", though the style also encompasses dramatic re-enactments, depicting the trial and torture of a medieval Satanic suspect, as well as her more-modern counterpart, now considered merely mentally-ill.

A long-time staple at the late, lamented Scala Cinema in London, it starts off like an educational feature, being mostly a slideshow of woodcut illustrations, complete with pointer. The middle section is the most effective: one can only imagine the reaction of audiences at the time to unflinching depictions, both of Satanic ritual [the director himself plays the Devil] and witch-hunts based on torture-extracted testimony. I say "can only imagine", because it didn't have much impact on me. Let's be honest: I dozed off, despite its visually innovative style, though in its defence, the large bowl of pasta consumed immediately beforehand likely played its part. Occasionally slightly creepy, it did provoke an occasional "Eww!", but remains little more than a curiosity piece.

January 2005

The Devil made me do it
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