Dry leaves shatter beneath footfall. The black cat crosses your path and the unseen shambler moves in shadows. Ahead at the crossroads you see the eerie light of cheap plastic novelties, pumpkin heads and smiling bones, foul green witches and boltnecked monstrosities. They hang in the window. You approach the videostore door. The goth girl stacks another late return back on the shelf and turns her eyes to Ginger Snaps on the in-store screen, the piercing scene. Halloween approaches, and you seek fresh bloody rentals, something to watch within while the plastic-masked werewolves bay without, horror while the corn pops and you crack open a Wychwood brew.
As the nights grow longer and the witching season falls upon us, the Bureaucrats (can you think of a scarier name for us?) of Bureau42 will be reviewing one seasonally-suited movie each day. Tonight, boys and ghouls, the ‘Shredder will play host, and we’ll wander back through the ages to 1922….
Cast, Crew, and Other Info:
Director/Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Titled Häxan in the original Swedish, and also known in English as The Witches, this 1922 curiousity and classic features pioneering effects sequences that remain impressive. While not a documentary in the strict sense, it presents a fair bit of researched history, and defends theses concerning the superstitious belief in witches and witchcraft. The film strays from the purely factual with its most memorable segments, imaginative recreations of diabolical doings. Forget the filmed woodcuts and segments on medieval medicine. Haxon shines when it recreates Satan’s possession of a convent or a crone’s account of the Black Mass.
The Black Mass sequence remains one of the great parades of horror imagery in cinematic history. An elderly crone, under threat of torture, tells prurient inquisitors what they want to hear. Christensen combines costumes, sophisticated stagecraft, and elementary visual effects into a silent-era nightmare with a power that eludes many modern horror films. You may find yourself wondering if that was a real murdered infant being used in the diabolical ritual.
The past was not always as prim as we’d like to believe. This sequence features nudity, simulated corpse desecration, and demonic masturbation. Parental guidance suggested.
Some early segments which present images from books accompanied by ponderous narration wear out their silent-era charm rather quickly.
Originality: 6/6 No one had made an imaginative documentary on the history of the belief in witchcraft before. I’m not certain anyone has made one since.
Effects: 5/6. The effects, created through stagecraft and simple photographic effects generally hold up, and they have a nightmarish potency that often eludes the slicker methods used today.
Story: 3/6: It’s a documentary (sort of), but a narrative thread runs through it.
Acting: 4/6: Generally, not bad. Kudos to the director, who plays naked Satan at the Black Mass, and to the real-life hag who appears in a few of the sequences.
Production: 4/6 This varies quite a bit. Some sections– such as the early explanation of early views of cosmology– are poorly done. Others are, for the time, exceptional.
Emotional Response: 4/6 This will vary from sequence to sequence.
In total, Witchcraft Through the Ages receives 31/42.
Many versions exist of this film, as it was censored and edited throughout its history. Different soundtracks have been added. Most famous is the “cool” ’69 version, with music by Jean-Luc Ponty and narration by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs makes interesting use of the vernacular; the witches in this version “kiss the devil’s arse.” The DVD permits the viewer to experience this version and others.
Like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies “Zoot Suit Riot” and the Black Mass sequence synchronize eerily. My account of this weird phenom may be found here.