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Sunday, September 6, 2015

HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922)

There’s never been anything quite like this eye-popping oddity from Danish helmer Benjamin Christensen. A sort of documentary tour of witches & Devil worship, it goes back, via woodcuts & engravings, to ancient Egypt & the Renaissance, before using reenactment footage for longer/weirder/scarier tales from the Middle Ages and beyond. (Our modern, secular age finds psychological maladies substituting for yesteryear’s Satanic possession.) A jump from sober-sided illustrated lecture to the phantasmagoric comes when Christensen ups the ante in the second of seven chapters, personally leaping into view to play Beelzebub. How serious are we to take these things? Especially when Christensen seems to hang off to one side, giving subtext, examples & footnotes as needed. Loaded with detail, meticulous sets and, in its second half, striking special effects for broomstick flying, kiss-my-ass orgies (no, really!) and delectatious torture sessions that produce confessional family denunciations, it’s still powerful. The work of a true believer . . . or of a supreme ironist? Criterion’s restored edition is probably the best out there, but some of tinting & toning is so darkly saturated that crucial detail is lost. You can barely see that Christensen is lewdly waggling his tongue like a panting dog as the devil.  (NOTE: Family Friendly? Sure, if there's a Goth teen in the house.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Christensen never quite followed up on this. His six late-silent Hollywood pics sound as interesting as Victor Seastrom’s (both did a Lon Chaney masochistic specialty number) or Paul Leni’s (each with comic Haunted House pics), but they don’t really come off. A better pairing is Carl Dreyer’s deeply disturbing witch-burning classic DAY OF WRATH/’43. Christensen convinces you that he believes; after Dreyer, you believe.

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