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Grave robbing, torture, possessed nuns, and a satanic Sabbath: Benjamin Christensen's legendary film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the middle ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients. But the film itself is far from serious-instead it's a witches' brew of the scary, gross, and darkly humorous. The Criterion Collection is proud to present two versions of this genre-defying "documentary," for the first time ever on DVD.
Witchcraft through the ages is explored with dark wit in this silent classic. Writer-director Benjamin Christensen uses a historical study of witchcraft as a jumping-off point for a fascinating film that is part science, part horror, and part social commentary. This Criterion edition uses a beautiful print, a rearrangement of music from the original Danish premiere, and the original Swedish intertitles (with subtitles). Goodies include commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg, the option of watching a narrated version without intertitles, and test shots from the film. The test shots, in particular, give insight into the early filmmaking process, as when Christensen uses his own image to try out (and reject) a flying effect. This is a worthy edition to the collection of fans of horror films, silent films, and film in general. --Ali Davis
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With an effective cast who could act out the paranoid mindset that was swelling and spreading, Häxan had and still has the ability to lead viewers into witnessing some darker realms of humanity that were under the guise of spirituality. The emotion of fear, in conjunction with superstitions regarding a village's misfortunes, would prevail throughout this movie. As it would often fall in line with the edicts of those in power, namely the clerics, and as it would secure the standings of those already at the top, fear, as it would be experienced among laypersons and lower-ranking pastorates, overruled logic.
It can be argued that Häxan was a creative exposition to the adage that wrong people in power, if given the opportunity, will try to control the minds of others by keeping them poor, blind, scared and stupid. Häxan is based on a premise that a collective mindset built upon rumor, superstition and hate is highly dangerous.
Though this movie is nearly ninety years old, Häxan does have its fascinating, visual effects that were perhaps way ahead of their time. Portions of the movie depicted those deemed as the outsiders, that is to say, the pagans or devil worshippers who performed rituals that consisted of costumes, masks, and fire altars with some similarities to the pagan festivities in the 1973 movie, The Wicker Man. And it is within these ceremonial scenes that the stunning, technical aspects of the film arise.
The viewer is transported right away into a different dimension, where it is not clear if it is supposed to be an outer, spiritual world that exists or the enactment of what was in the mind's eye of the superstitious. Nonetheless, the presence of ghostlike figures and demons helped to create as stunning a heaven-or-hell dilemma as what one could possibly hope for from this film. The trick photography for enhancing the awesome spectral appearances leaves little doubt that ten years later, Carl Theodor Dreyer's use of ectoplasmic imagery in his 1932 film, Vampyr, was inspired by the viewing of Häxan.
All in all, this classic is, to say the least, a quintessential two-for-one. It is a perfect docudrama in the history of human behavior, and it is the perfect expositor of the genius of Benjamin Christensen, the movie's writer and director.
For those of you who know HAXAN only through the William Burroughs version known as WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, it too has been included in this new release (DVD and VHS) so you can see the difference. Added bonuses include footage of Christensen in 1941 (in addition to directing he also portrayed Satan) and outtakes from various scenes. While not a great film it remains a remarkable, gripping experience full of striking images that stay with you long after the film is over. Although not a documentary in the true sense of the word, it does attempt to portray a selected history of what was called witchcraft and how it was brutally dealt with by the church. Scenes of nudity, torture, carnal lust, and flagellation helped to get it banned in several countries as well as heavily edited.
While the film is not for everyone it should be seen at least once for once seen it cannot be forgotten and now it's possible to see it restored to its former glory. Although it's great to have the original version, it's also good to have the Burroughs version as well. Another excellent job from the Home Vision people (who brought us Dreyer's PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and Pabst's PANDORA'S BOX). Thanks to the Criterion Collection for making it available on DVD. Though here in time for Halloween, HAXAN is definitely not for kids! Even after 80 years.