Tag Archives: Witchcraft

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery.  The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Scene from Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

67. SUSPIRIA (1977)

“For Suspiria I was inspired by… everything that German Expressionism means: dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis.”–Dario Argento

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , Joan Bennet, Allida Valli, Stefania Casini

PLOT: Suzy, an American ballet student, is accepted to a German dance academy, but when she arrives there one stormy night she is denied entrance and watches as a young woman flees the school and runs into the forest. The next day she returns and is admitted to the academy with apologies, but she soon falls ill and becomes too weak to practice with the other students. After a series of bizarre occurrences and disappearances, Suzy becomes convinced that the faculty and staff of the academy are not who they pretend to be.

Still from Suspiria (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • Suspiria (concerning the “Mother of Sighs”) is the first and most notable of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. Subsequent installments are Inferno (1980, about the “Mother of Darkness”) and Mother of Tears (2007). The idea of the Three Mothers came from opium-addicted English writer Thomas de Quincey, who invented a myth of three witches analogous to the three Fates in his collection of fantastical essays Suspiria de Profundis (“suspiria” is Latin for “sighs”).
  • Argento originally wanted the story to feature a school of girls in the 8-10 year age range, but producers balked at the idea of showing gruesome murders of children. Although he cast adults to play the roles, Argento left in some childlike dialogue, and actually raised the doorknobs on the set so that the actress’ would have to reach up to turn them, as if they were children.
  • Argento has said that the color scheme for Suspiria was inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
  • In an early scene in the taxicab Argento’s scowling face can be seen momentarily reflected in the glass that separates the driver and the passenger; the effect is nearly subliminal.
  • Suspiria was one of the last films made using the Technicolor process.
  • Argento co-composed the remarkable soundtrack, performed by the Italian progressive rock group Goblin.
  • Rumors of a remake have been circulating for years. A project entitled Suspiria is (at the time of this writing) listed as “in development” on the IMDB, scheduled for a 2012 release. There are reports that Italian producer Marco Morabito has confirmed that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) will direct. Earlier rumors speculated that Natalie Portman would play the lead. (UPDATE: the remake is here, and it was almost none of what was predicted).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isolating a single indelible image in the movie is an impossible task; Suspiria shapes its surreality from the play of supersaturated colors on the baroque walls of the dance academy, and from its impossible, unnatural lighting schemes. The colors as a whole are indelible; there are perhaps a dozen impossibly lit individual shots (scenes that look as if they were inked by a demented gnome) that together form an impression of a world gone luminescently awry. The image of Suzy posed in front on a neon peacock as she enters the witch’s chamber, with a background column glowing an improbable scarlet from an unseen light source, is as a representative an image as any.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there are plenty of “weird” (in the sense of “uncanny” or“ occult”) occurrences in Suspiria—such as the rain of maggots—it’s the stylized sensual elements, the brilliantly unreal cinematography and the relentless unnerving score, that catapult the movie out of the realm of ordinary supernatural horror and land it in its own unique fairy tale nightmare realm.

Edgar Wright’s commentary for Suspiria trailer for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS: Suspiria is more an assault on the senses than a narrative; it’s Gothic horror Continue reading 67. SUSPIRIA (1977)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANTICHRIST (2009)

Antichrist has been promoted to the List of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. This page is left here for archival reasons. Pelase go to 72. Antichrist for more in-depth coverage of the film and to make comments.

DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier

FEATURING: William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

PLOT: After the death of their only child, a therapist takes his grieving and anxiety-ridden wife to a retreat in the woods to face her irrational fears; when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.

Still from Antichrist (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Actually, von Trier’s troubled and troubling Antichrist is almost a shoo-in to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.  Though the graphic torture-porn (and plain old-fashioned porn) elements have stolen the headlines and alienated viewers, at bottom this is von Trier’s spookiest and most mysterious film, a trip deep into the heart of darkness, and one the viewer may have as difficult a time returning home from intact as the characters do.  The irrational horror of von Trier’s vision is only magnified by the sense that you aren’t so much watching a filmic depiction of madness as watching a director going insane in real time, before your very eyes: he seems to lose control of his story as it progresses, turning the climax over to his internal demons for script-doctoring, before reasserting some measure of control of his material in a surreal epilogue.  While worthy of consideration, Antichrist finds itself in the same situation as the Coen brothers A Serious Man; we’re not going to officially certify it for the List until it receives its home video debut and we have a chance to scrutinize it more closely than is possible in a cinema.

COMMENTS: Lars von Trier desreves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with approximately four transgressive, shocking scenes: not because such sights should never be shown, but because these tasteless displays dominate our experience and force every viewer (and reviewer) to deal with them first and foremost.  Their sole artistic function are to serve as obstacles to appreciating the grim beauty of the remaining film.  Whether their inclusion is a calculated act by a prankster director, or a lapse in judgment resulting from psychological impairment (von Trier claims to have written the script as self-therapy to help him deal with a crippling bout of depression much like the one suffered by Charlotte Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANTICHRIST (2009)