SEPTEMBER 12, 2009
Undoubtedly the most unique HMAD entry, Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages is only a horror movie in the general sense (and in the sense that IMDb lists it as one, though it was also recommended by HMAD reader Garv), due to the subject matter (Witchcraft, Satan, Germany) and batshit presentation. You’d think with all the Grindhouse movies I’ve seen there over the years that I would have seen a baby being eaten before or several monsters climbing out of a woman’s vagina, but Haxan I believe was the first (it’s certainly the only one to offer both).
It also must hold the record for the most iris close/open “wipes” in film history. Sometimes you get three or four in under 20 seconds, as director Benjamin Christensen uses them in at the top and bottom of each shot of a particular sequence (there are a lot of montages that present examples of witchcraft via photos displayed in succession). This 1968 version is actually a bit reworked from its original 1922 incarnation, so I don’t know why he never reconsidered removing some of these in the 40+ years he had to give it some thought.
Other than that it’s a wonderfully strange and engaging film. I’ve already mentioned the baby-eating, but there are quite a number of on-screen elements that threw me for a loop, given the film’s age. You hear about how Hitchcock nearly got in trouble for showing a toilet in 1960, so you just sort of assume that everything before that was even tamer. But this movie offers up visuals that might get MPAAed into smithereens even today (the Devil suggestively churning better got many an uncomfortable laugh), not to mention some that are just plain... icky (fat guy, fat woman, love potion that works a bit too good.. you do the math). It also poses whether or not “possessed” or Devil-controlled people are simply suffering from mental afflictions, which is an area I wish to see more of in films (horror or documentary - both are fine by me).
I also dug the occasional stop-motion animation. This is obviously long before Harryhausen (but after Méliès), and it’s great to see such skill when cinema was still relatively new. It also blends fairly well with the live action stuff (all limitations considering, i.e. they didn’t have After Effects), which also impressed me greatly. The costumes/makeup effects are also quite impressive. Christensen himself plays the devil, and it actually looks better than half of the modern movies’ versions I’ve seen, as do the various demons and imps that are dancing about in every other scene.
Afterward I discovered that the film had a different version that ran nearly 30 minutes longer. But no footage was deleted; instead it merely had more title cards and a slower speed. The version I saw had new narration by William Burroughs, which is what replaced a lot of those time-consuming title cards. I’m all for that, but it also had a new jazz score that I hated. I’m not a big fan of jazz to begin with (there are far too few songs about Bats out of Hell and people experiencing Paradise in the vicinity of Dashboard Lights in the jazz genre for me to give it much adulation), but the score just didn’t fit at all. Ignoring the obvious anachronistic problems (don’t recall reading about jazz musicians grooving about during the middle ages), it just never quite fits the images on the screen. Thanks to Internet Archive, I was able to watch the original cut (with all the titles intact) that has the original score, which is obviously far superior. Unless you’re a big jazz (or Burroughs) fan, I think it’s worth the extra 27 minutes or so it takes to watch the original version. Ideally, the narration would be blended with the original score for the best of both worlds, but alas.
Regardless of which version you see, you’ll be a better horror fan for it. It’s nearly a hundred years old at this point, and yet it contains effects that still hold up, themes that are still explored today, and is undoubtedly the vision of one guy (as opposed to various producers and executives adding their own two cents to the narrative to justify their job, regardless of whether it even makes sense - which is pretty much all we get today). Plus, again - BABY EATING.
What say you?