Sunday, 17 May 2015

1922: Haxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages

 This year brought two of the greatest early horror films, F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu", and Benjamin Christensen's "Haxan". I've watched them both this week but I've picked "Haxan" as my film for the year as it's the more neglected of the two. "Haxan" is what would today be called a drama-documentary. It's a picturesque tour of witchcraft in the late medieval world; how it was allegedly practiced, why, and by whom - and about what happened to those people.
 It begins with a summary of the medieval view of the world and its place in the universe using contemporary art and artifacts, then goes on to show witches of the time practicing their evil deeds, as seen through the fevered imaginations of those who feared them. In its most intense sequence, an old woman is arrested by the inquisition, tortured, and inevitably spills the beans on all her evil deeds - midnight masses with other witches, cavorting with the devil and giving birth to his monstrous children, flying over the rooftops with other witches - she names her enemies who got her arrested in the first place, who will now be arrested in their turn.
 This film has more startling images in any ten minutes than just about any ten other whole films. Unsurprisingly it was banned in most countries as wicked and profane (and consequently lost for many years) and it's certainly lurid and shocking, but beneath the surface there's a serious message for all ages - that rumours, accusations and counter-accusations can get out of control if not responded to with caution and rationality, with tragic results.

 ALSO FROM 1922:

Nosferatu, of course - the other great horror film and the granddaddy of all vampire pictures. Still probably the most unsettling, more so I think than any of the Universal or Hammer Dracula films, and rivalled only by Werner Herzog's remake. The current restored version, available on Blu-ray from Eureka, is about 20 minutes longer than any previous version.

Grandma's Boy: Harold Lloyd enters the comedy-feature fray and goes to the other extreme from Chaplin, having a sweet old lady rather than a sweet little boy.

Oliver Twist: Only 13 years on from the previously reviewed adaptation, this is a world away in film-making terms. The story is neatly condensed, and presents a convincing Victorian London. I'd have said David Lean owed much to it, including the scene of Bill Sikes's terrified dog trying to escape under the door as he murders Nancy, except that the film was considered lost at the time. Jackie Coogan is not too nauseating as the eponymous goody-no-shoes who fails to be corrupted by either workhouse or gang of pickpockets, and Lon Chaney makes a menacing Fagin.

Dr Mabuse the Gambler: Fritz Lang's epic crime-thriller serial about a master criminal whose power of will and hypnosis seem almost supernatural. Another German masterpiece with odd future-echoes of that country's own history.  

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