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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Witchcraft through the ages

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From: "2,500 Movies Challenge" <>
Date: Jun 22, 2014 4:17 PM
Subject: Dave's 2,500 Movies Challenge
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Dave's 2,500 Movies Challenge

#1,406. Häxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Directed By: Benjamin Christensen

Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen

Trivia: At the time, this was the most expensive film produced in any Scandinavian country

Directed by Benjamin Christensen, 1922's Häxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages is a strange combination of documentary and horror, with plenty of dramatizations (both historical and fantasy) that chart the evolution of sorcery and witchcraft, while also exploring the superstition and religious indignation that condemned many so-called "witches", most of whom were tortured and killed.

Separated into seven chapters, Häxan begins with a look at ancient beliefs, from what the heavens were made of to how demons walked the earth. From there, the film moves into several dramatized segments, including a witch preparing a love potion for a woman who lusts after a monk (Oscar Stribolt) as well as an appearance by the devil himself (played by director Christensen, in some effectively creepy make-up). There are scenes of a witch trial, where an elderly seamstress (Emmy Schönfeld), who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is dragged before a religious tribunal and accused of putting a hex on a wealthy man. After being tortured, she confesses to bewitching the man, and then proceeds to "name" other witches in her "coven". The film concludes with a look at torture devices, and an Exposé on mental illness, drawing the conclusion that what was once considered witchcraft (such as kleptomania) is now seen as a treatable disease.

Admittedly, I was a bit concerned when Häxan first began. The film's opening chapter consists of a series of prints, depicting ancient beliefs (like how the Egyptians were convinced stars were simply lights hanging from the heavens by a rope), spirits, and the occasional demon. This entire sequence is far too scholarly, reminding me of the slide shows I was occasionally subjected to in school (and which always put me to sleep). At times, a pointer even pops into view, drawing our attention to what director Christensen believed were "important" details. However, once the second chapter got underway, I was glued to the screen, due in part to the story being told (a witch at work making potions), but also by how extreme some of the imagery was (the witch, collecting ingredients for her latest concoction, pulls a finger off a decomposing corpse). Quite often, the dramatized sequences feel like a horror movie (one scene, in which the devil suddenly pops into view, is still an effective jump scare), and the film's various special effects, from stop-motion (coins moving on their own, as well as a moment when a small creature breaks through the door) to superimposed images of witches flying through the sky on their broom, are pretty damned good. But it's the movie's tendency to shock that will really stay with you (in one sequence, a pair of witches squat over pots, urinate into them, then throw their piss at the front door of a person they're putting a curse on!).

Despite its slow start, Häxan : Witchcraft through the Ages proved to be a singularly unique experience, a nightmarish journey into the world of magic and sorcery, as well as a diatribe on man's inhumanity to man. It's also one of the most unusual silent films you're likely to see… ever!

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