Showing posts with label 31 Days of Silent Horror Films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 31 Days of Silent Horror Films. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Early Horror Anthology Film Is Big on Style

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying early film, it’s that one has to be very careful about throwing around the word “first.” With so many silent films gone forever, what we think of as the first example of a type of film is often merely the first surviving example. (See the Film Dirt post on the first werewolf film, which may just turn your ideas about film werewolfery upside down.) 

Paul Leni’s Waxworks is often referred to as the earliest horror film anthology, and while it could be argued that it’s the first influential one (or the first good one), it’s predated by 1919’s Eerie Tales. (If you know of one that beats Eerie Tales, by all means, let me know.) If there’s anything makes Waxworks questionable as an anthology horror film, it’s the fact that the stories are not strictly horrific, but a mix of fantasy, adventure, and horror—in a similar vein to a Weird Tales comic, if you ask me, and those are classified as horror. Horror takes many forms, from the somewhat thrilling to the truly gruesome, and  Waxworks covers the gamut. Most everyone who sees it will have a favorite segment, and which segment that is may depend largely on a person’s preferred genre (or favorite actor).

Wax figures on display in Waxworks. Note the third figure, whose segment was cut from the film due to budget constraints.

Waxworks was director Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before he headed to Hollywood at the behest of Carl Laemmle and made some of the most important horror films of the late silent era: The Cat and the Canary (1927)—which practically invented the “old dark house” genre—and The Man Who Laughs (1928). The film’s German title is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, an example of the kind of thing Mark Twain likely had in mind when he wrote that “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” If the “kabinett” part evokes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s no accident. Leni didn’t just make use of Caligari’s two leads (Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss); he patterned the whole film on its successful predecessor, right down to the fairground setting.

The film begins as a young poet (William Dieterle) answers a newspaper ad seeking a writer “for publicity work in a wax museum.” Though nothing seems to make sense about a wax museum needing an in-house writer, he takes a what-could-possibly-go-wrong attitude and applies within. The proprietor is played by John Gottowt, who silent horror fans will know from The Student of Prague, Genuine, and as Nosferatu’s version of Van Helsing. He has a lovely daughter as an assistant (of course), and they ask the writer to come up with some “startling tales” about the wax figures on display, hoping it will somehow drum up business. (“I wish there were more here to read”--said no wax museum patron ever.) While the three are perusing the figures in the wax collection, Harun al-Rashid’s arm falls off (making it even more puzzling that the proprietor thinks hiring a poet is the best use of his budget). The writer—proving he’s really keen to earn his paycheck—gets right to work, saying he’ll write a story about how the figure lost his arm.

Seems legit.
If he continues to print the whole story like this, he's going to need a lot of paper.

Thus, we are transported into an Arabian Nights tale, with Emil Jannings playing against type as a rather goofy, huge-bellied Caliph. The poet imagines himself as a humble pie baker whose billowing smoke causes al-Rashid to lose a game of chess and subsequently demand the baker’s head. He sends his Grand Vizier to do the head-chopping, but he returns sans head to report that the baker may be in possession of something much more interesting than his noggin: his sexpot of  a wife. The Caliph, in disguise, sets out to seduce the baker’s wife, and he couldn’t be more repulsive, making the hourglass shape with his hands, calling her “my casket of honey,” and practically drooling all over her. Meanwhile, the baker has stolen into the Caliph’s abode and stolen his magic ring (a pretty adventurous, not to mention stylish, scene unfolds as he is pursued). Hijinks ensue when he returns home, where his wife has locked the door and hidden the Caliph in the oven to avoid the appearance of infidelity. The magic ring ends up saving the day, and everyone ends up pretty happy.

A very stylish Baghdad.

The second segment features Ivan the Terrible, played by the unmatchable Conrad Veidt. Veidt is exciting even at the film’s beginning when he’s merely posing as the wax version of Ivan. He no doubt got some practice at being still when he played Caligari’s somnambulist, but here he’s wide-eyed, and somehow almost as expressive as when he’s in motion. His Ivan is appropriately terrible, skulking around in torture dungeons and relishing the deaths of his victims. The official Poison Mixer, who also seems to be something of a mystic, announces an impending victim by writing his name on an hourglass. After the glass is turned over and the poison introduced, the victim dies as the last bit of sand falls. Ivan becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be targeted, and even manages to have a nobleman killed by trading clothes with him and letting him be assassinated. We know Ivan’s number is up, though, when the Poison Mixer writes “ZAR IWAN” on his hourglass. Veidt is deliciously manic as he continuously turns over the hourglass, hoping to postpone his inevitable end. 

Veidt doing what he does best: playing insanity.

Segment three is the shortest, but is perhaps the most memorable of all the stories. The title cards refer to the third villain as “Spring Heeled Jack,” while the credits refer to “Jack the Ripper.” The Werner Krauss character bears the most resemblance to an updated Ripper as his wax figure comes to life and stalks the poet and the owner’s daughter through the museum’s twisted, expressionistic halls—which easily call to mind a stylized version of the streets of London, foreshadowing 1927’s The Lodger. (Spring Heeled Jack, it should be noted, was a character from urban legends, known for looking like a demon and jumping off of rooftops. Though many sources think he’s the character being referenced here, I respectfully disagree, and believe Leni simply confused his name with the other notorious Jack.) In somewhat predictable fashion (though common for the time), the poet awakes just as Jack begins to do his ripping. 

Screenshot from the exceptionally expressionistic Ripper scene.

The brief Ripper sequence was meant to segue into a fourth story, though budget constraints are said to have led to its elimination. The missing tale was to be the story of Rinaldo Rinaldini, a robber captain who appeared in a popular penny dreadful of the late 18th century. You can still see the wax figure of Rinaldini, who was to be played by Dieterle, in the film’s early scenes. (He’s the guy in the big hat.)

Even with all the German film luminaries involved, the film’s design is the true star of Waxworks. Leni has given Caligari  a run for its money with his deep shadows, neon signs, merry-go-rounds and warped staircases. While it’s far from realistic—the city of Baghdad looks like an abstract charcoal painting—it’s exactly what Leni wanted. In his own words, the director said, “For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.” And: “I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews…”

Waxworks production sketch by Paul Leni.

Part of the cast and crew of Waxworks.

A word should be said about the score, composed and performed by Jon C. Mirsalis on the version I watched (part of Kino’s 2004 German Horror Classics collection, and also available as a standalone DVD). I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mirsalis play at live screenings, and here he is appropriately stylish—a musical counterpart to Leni’s work—without ever overshadowing the film. A perfect accompaniment.

Though not the first true horror anthology film, Waxworks set the standard for anthology films to follow, and its influence is evident in non-anthology films as well. Veidt’s performance as Ivan was the model for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in 1946, and the Harun al-Raschid segment reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Lawrence of Arabia. Leni’s influence would no doubt have made his name as huge as Murnau’s or Browning’s is today, had it not been for his death in 1929 at age 44, from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth. Leni was slated to direct Dracula, for which Universal had recently acquired the rights, with Conrad Veidt to star. The teaming of Leni and Veidt for Universal’s Dracula may be one of Hollywood’s greatest what-might-have-beens  (though no one can really argue with the success of the resulting Browning/Lugosi film).

Leni may not have lived long enough to become one of the household names in horror, but all of his films deserve a long look, and Waxworks deserves its place in early horror film history. 

This film was originally watched as part of Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror. See the full list here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Short, Spooky Films of Segundo de Chomón, “The Spanish Méliès”

Today’s silent horror film for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is actually more than one film. To coincide with today’s Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, I’m focusing on the short films of Spanish film pioneer Segundo de Chomón, who also happens to be a pioneer of silent horror.

I always find it odd that horror films as a genre are seen as a niche interest, or at least considered to be outside of the mainstream. It’s a little puzzling considering that many of the very first films ever made featured supernatural themes and horror characters. Georges Méliès’  Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) from 1896 depicts a skeleton that turns into a bat, then into the Devil, who conjures up a host of spooky spectres. It’s one of the earliest films in existence, and it’s decidedly horror. Even Edison took a stab at horror with his famous 1910 version of Frankenstein.

Spanish silent film pioneer Segundo de Chomon.

But, while pioneers like Méliès and Edison are known outside of silent film geekdom, not many people are familiar with the name Segundo de Chomón. De Chomón, who not only was a master of early film techniques, but also an innovator of horror special effects, is often referred to as “the Spanish Méliès,” but in many ways surpassed the achievements of the more famous filmmaker. Whether or not you agree with his superiority to Méliès, de Chomón is inarguably the most important Spanish director of silent films.

Aragon-born de Chomón was lured into the film world by his wife, French actress Julienne Mathieu. One of the earliest French film actresses, Mathieu appeared in a slew of early early Pathé Frères productions. De Chomón became an agent for Pathé Frères films in Spain, and by 1901 was producing his own actuality films of Spanish locales. He soon learned to hand-tint films and ultimately helped develop the Pathéchrome process. Inspired by Méliès, he began working on trick films, and Pathé was happy to support his efforts, hoping to compete with the French filmmaker’s popular projects. 

Claymation head from de Chomon's Haunted House.

De Chomón quickly moved past mere mimicry of Méliès work with stop-motion and double exposure effects and developed his own camera tricks. His films display his innovations in hand-drawn animation and silhouette animation, the latter of which he was among the first to use. De Chomón developed his own methods of single-frame techniques, optical dissolves, and traveling shots, taking it all farther than Méliès ever did. In fact, when Méliès company was beginning to fail, de Chomón was gaining even more steam. He accepted an invitation to work on films in Italy and directed the special effects on notable full-length films like Cabiria  and Maciste in Hell  (Film #10 in the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event). Filmed using a tracking camera of de Chomón’s own invention, Cabiria is said to feature the first ever “dolly” shot in film.

Special effects aside, one of the other ways de Chomón pushed the envelope further than Méliès is with his stories, and that’s where his importance as a horror filmmaker comes in. De Chomón played more with fantastic narratives and surreal elements, weaving them into a story, rather than just presenting them for the sake of a special effect. Sometimes those elements are downright gruesome, such as the worms that appear inside a cake in Panicky Picnic. Even by today’s standards, his horror elements are often eery and unsettling (the face that appears in the mirror in La Maison Ensorcelée is still nightmare-inducing today). 

Animated silhouettes of demons interspersed with live action shots.

La Maison Ensorcelée (1908) or The Haunted House is a prime example of what made de Chomón so special in his time. It’s loaded with special effects, and some of them are effects that continued to be used in horror film for decades to come. Enchanted clothing would still seem like a pretty neat trick when Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out 63 years later. Also notable are the multiple kinds of animation techniques used in the short (plus the fact that it’s blended in with live actors): hand-drawn animation, silhouette animation, miniatures, and claymation all make an appearance in the film. While stop-motion animation was around before  de Chomón came along, the enchanted breakfast in La Maison Ensorcelée is still one of the best examples of it in early film, with self-slicing sausages and tea that pours itself. Lest it all seem more quaint than horrifying, that spooky character from the mirror shows up again for a frightening finale.

One of the other de Chomón films of particular interest to silent horror film fans is Satan S’amuse (1907) or Satan at Play. On the surface, it’s a magic act, similar to the many shorts of Méliès or other magicians-turned-filmmakers like Walter Booth. De Chomón has added some horror touches that go beyond the skeleton costume of the titular demon. Particularly grim is a levitation act performed with two (for the time) attractive women. Each woman is wrapped in a swath of dark paper, rather like a giant cigar, before she is levitated, then set aflame. We see the bundles begin to disintegrate before our eyes just as they vanish, taking the presumably charred bodies of the women with them. By the end of the macabre magic show, the Devil sets the entire set on fire. (While not a horror element, I was particularly pleased to see the Pathé rooster appear briefly on one of the illusions. The rooster served as a way of copyrighting the films, and it’s always fun to spot it when it turns up. This is one of the most clever uses of it I’ve seen.)

As a bonus, I’d like to mention La Grenouille or The Frog (1908). It’s a fun bit of surrealism that proves just how influential De Chomón still is today. Those who follow pop music will recognize that Lady Gaga borrowed several elements from the film for her video to the song “Applause,” right down to the tinted smoke and the clamshells (and of course the obvious spinning head).


It’s hard to know for sure why de Chomón’s name is not as well-known as that of Méliès, but some speculate that it’s because he was from Spain but did so much work in France, thus no country ever really claimed him as their own. There’s also the fact that he was largely forgotten after his death, while several people worked to champion Méliès after his death and preserve his work. And, of course, modern audiences know Méliès thanks to the movie Hugo. Regardless of why he was forgotten, Segundo de Chomón needs to be rediscovered and remembered for his contributions to horror films and to all films with special effects. He was indisputably a master. 


This post is a crossover post for both Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon ...

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Unknown (1927): Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, and One Beautifully Bizarre Plot

Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower in Tod Browning's The Unknown. Some of the stunts were performed by real-life armless foot double Paul Desmuke, who went on to perform for years billing himself as "Lon Chaney's Feet."

I was intrigued by The Unknown long before I ever saw it, all because of an anecdote related to how the film went missing for decades. Researching and writing a book about lost films means I’ve heard about a lot of different ways that films are lost—fire, earthquakes, destruction by Nazis, being left on the subway, or being dumped into a mining pool, to name a few—but this one is in a class of its own. The Cinémathèque Française ultimately found a 35mm print of The Unknown in their very own archives, where it had become lost among all of the hundreds of reels of unidentified film similarly marked “Unknown.” (Well, technically marked L’inconnu.) This is the only instance I know of in which a film’s title caused it to be lost.

Man, am I glad they found it. I’m about to fall victim of the problem I have where the more I like a film, the less capable I am of talking about it. I just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them as I drool and say, “Watch this! Watch this weird and wonderful thing, right now!” Let me just begin by saying that this is a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration in which Chaney plays an armless carnival knife-thrower. That should be enough right there, and as much as I’d love for you to read the rest of my post, if that is enough to intrigue you, then go … go and watch it now, because I’m going to lay down some spoilers. (Come back and read the rest later!)

And if that’s not enough for you? Well, this film is going to get a lot weirder. And then it’s going to get weird some more. And I’m not talking about weird for 1927—this is weird for the ages.

Lon Chaney is a circus performer known as Alonzo the Armless, and the film’s first scene shows us Alonzo in action, throwing knives, with his feet, at Joan Crawford. Now, silent film fans know better, but there are a lot of people in the world who only know Crawford from her later work—in other words, as the scary hag of Mommie Dearest fame—but in the 1920s, she was an ingenue. Here, she is eighteen years-old and luminous as Nanon, the circus manager’s daughter. Alonzo’s talented toes alternately hurl knives and shoot bullets around the outline of her perfect figure, and as each weapon penetrates the board, she loses a piece of her clothing, revealing a skimpy costume underneath.  As if this psycho-sexual act doesn’t have enough psycho in it, the whole thing takes place on a huge, rotating platform, Alonzo flinging and grinning and shooting, and Nanon getting nakeder and nakeder as she spins by. 

Alonzo the Armless prepares to entertain.

After the show, we learn that Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, who feels safe around the only man she knows who doesn’t try to grope her. In fact, she has a near-pathological aversion to masculine meathooks: “Men, the beasts! God should take all their hands.” Also in love with Nanon is Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus strong man with a wispy mustache, who seems a bit of a scuzz. He skulks around her caravan after the show and seems intent on doing some of the groping she so despises, and tells her he loves her, and that he’ll tell her so every day (in other words, expect him to drop by for some harassment on the regular). Alonzo enjoys watching Malabar rebuffed, and even gives him the advice to take Nanon in his arms, knowing that she’ll recoil from him even more.Malabar is the anti-Alonzo, all strong and handsy. Good, safe, armless Alonzo is clearly the one who will win her hand-hating heart.

Malabar the Strong Man can't figure out that Nanon doesn't like to be touched.
I'm rooting for these two, whether it makes sense or not.

Alonzo heads back to his caravan, where his dwarf assistant Cojo (John George) then unstraps him from a torturous-looking corset contraption, revealing … Alonzo’s arms. He’s a faker! Alonzo the Armless is really Alonzo With the Conventional Number of Arms. (As you’re taking in this plot twist, it’s impossible not to think about the fact that Lon Chaney is spending so much of the movie with his arms confined in this thing, which doesn’t look fun at all—a sign of his dedication as an actor. He also looks lean and muscular and pretty damn good, and I’m thinking that while he’s certainly an unconventional romantic lead, it’s working for me.) Alonzo mutters something about the police and what they’d give to know who he really is. Oh no, I think. The good guy is sinister. Am I still supposed to root for him? I love flawed lead characters, so I figure that it’s safe to still consider Alonzo the good guy. Surely the “what he’s done” has some good explanation or is something noble, like stealing from the rich.

Oh, and it is also revealed in this scene that he has two thumbs on one hand. 

Alonzo the Non-Armless, with sidekick Cojo. Note the double thumbs.

Soon after, Alonzo’s status as Good Guy goes from cloudy to non-existent when he murders the circus manager. I can’t help but recall something a theatre professor once told me as we were reading Corneille’s Le Cid: “If you want to win a girl’s heart, don’t murder her father.” Alas for Alonzo, a flash of lightning illuminates his double-thumb as Nanon witnesses the murder. While she then knows that someone with two thumbs is the killer, no one suspects Mr. The Armless. In fact, as the cops arrive to question and fingerprint the gypsies, Alonzo is nonchalantly strumming a guitar with his feet.

Alonzo convinces Nanon to stay behind with him as the circus moves on, and Cojo witnesses a bit of intimacy between the two. The dwarf is not amused, and warns him that he can never let her touch him that way again lest she notice he has arms. He also reminds him that she saw the weird thumbs of the man who murdered her father. In other words, there’s no sane way the two can ever really be together. Alonzo, who has unstrapped his arms, is now so flustered that he’s lighting up and puffing away at a cigarette held between his toes. “You are forgetting you have arms,” Cojo laughs, but there may be more to it than that. Alonzo has reasoned out that while there may be no sane way the two can be together, there may be an insane way. 

Chaney's intensity shows in every single frame.

A word here about Lon Chaney’s acting: it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. He manages to convey both anger and anguish in these scenes. Everything about this whole story is absurd, yet I’m buying it, because Chaney is convincing me that every bit of his emotions are real. And that’s why I continue to buy it, to believe it, even though the next turn of events is shocking.

Alonzo tells us of his plan, though the title cards don’t let us in on it. They only show us Cojo’s horrified response: “No! Never do that!” But Alonzo does do that, which turns out to be blackmailing a surgeon to actually remove his arms. It’s the most over-the-top solution to a problem that could probably be conceived, but here, it sort of has a twisted logic. The only thing that Alonzo doesn’t consider is his recovery time, and during that time, Malabar, who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, has continued to spend every day telling Nanon he loves her. When Alonzo returns from his surgery, with nothing new to report, because no one knew he had arms to begin with, Nanon and Malabar have news of their own. They’re engaged! Not only has Nanon gotten over her fear of hands, but she loves Malabar’s big, strong hands.

In one fell swoop, Alonzo has lost the woman he loves to a man with arms, when he has just had his own removed in order to be with her. It’s like a perverted Gift of the Magi. Chaney’s response is one of the best moments in all of silent cinema. He smiles the biggest, fakest, most twisted smile you’ve ever seen, then breaks down into laughter. They laugh along at first, but the laughter becomes more and more maniacal until Chaney completely implodes. It’s the greatest visual meltdown I’ve ever seen.

No longer afraid of his arms.

While I’ve revealed most of the plot, I’ll hold back a little of the ending which is deliciously twisted, and involves a circus act and horses on treadmills.

It’s hard to know what to make of all of this, but I do know The Unknown is one of the most amazing silent films I’ve ever seen. As ridiculous as the set-up is, there’s something very modern and universal about it. The themes of obsession, sacrifice, loss: they’re things we all know, and Chaney’s performance makes us feel every bit of it along with him. Joan Crawford’s Nanon may at first seem silly with her fear of being touched, but it’s similar behavior to anyone who has suffered abuse.

Chaney and Browning would ultimately collaborate on ten films, and while it’s often remarked upon that each of their greatest works were outside of that collaboration, this is undoubtedly the best film they made together. The Unknown most certainly deserves to be known. 

The Unknown is available on DVD via Amazon, and streams in various spots around the internet (it’s in the public domain, though soundtrack quality varies). 

One of 31 silent horror films I'm watching this month. See the link below for the complete list (some with full reviews).

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Haxan (1922): The History of Witchcraft From a Silent Film-Era Perspective

Benjamin Christensen's Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages is sort of a documentary, and it’s the “sort of” that makes it still unlike any other film. The Swedish film blends fact and fiction in a purported attempt to explore the history of ideas about witchcraft from ancient times to 1922, when the film was made. Without meaning to, Christensen extended his film’s examination of changing attitudes almost one hundred years into the future. In other words, it’s almost impossible to reach the end of the film without reflecting on our own culture and how different it is from the world of 1922, when women were detained against their will and treated for “hysteria.” The fact that Häxan is still watched in 2015 also says a lot about what hasn’t changed: our interest in atrocities and perversions.

Demonic rites in Haxan.

Let’s face it. The main reason Häxan is still famous when other silent films have been forgotten, the reason it’s screened in the background at rock shows and underground dance clubs, and the reason it appeals to a broad range of people, young and old, is because of those atrocities and perversions. And I think Christensen knew full well what he was doing. While Häxan covers some parts of the history of witchcraft in detail (the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in particular), it never alludes to the Salem Witch Trials. Also absent is any mention of the witch in stories or fables. Christensen’s film style may be documentary-like, but it’s suspiciously subjective. He’s culled the material down to its most provocative and titillating. If woodcuts existed of naked young lasses being accused of witchcraft in Salem, I have a feeling it might have made the cut.

For all the facts—however accurate—Christensen presents us with, his main purpose seems to be to entertain, and to entertain by shocking the audience. And it works. Many people (and I’ll admit to being one of them) like their smut smart. We like nudity and violence and all manner of depravity best when it’s dressed up a little with facts, or history, or something artistic—something to make us feel as if our own urges and compulsions and interests are somehow superior to those of the unthinking masses. It’s worth noting that Christensen himself plays the Devil in the live-action scenes. The young women in the film who line up and kiss the Devil’s ass are kissing Christensen’s ass. The naked maiden who is lured by the Devil to the cemetery at night, where she falls to her knees at his feet, is lured by Christensen. The director himself wasn’t just intrigued by the perversions of witchcraft, but wanted to directly participate in them.

Director Christensen as the Devil himself.

Häxan’s seven parts begin with a study of the historical origins of witchcraft, from Ancient Babylon through Medieval times. Gruesome woodcuts are displayed: men boiled alive in cauldrons, devils pouring sulfur down men’s throats. To punctuate that this is serious business, perhaps, crucial details are highlighted by a hand with an academic pointer, as if we are attending an actual lecture. A steam-powered mechanical representation of Hell features animated demons torturing live victims, like a macabre vignette on a Disneyland ride. Eventually we learn a little about witchcraft, and the things witches were said to do, such as setting villages on fire, bewitching cows, and dancing naked with the Devil. I’ll leave you to guess which of these three we’ll hear more about as the film progresses.

Part two of Häxan features live-action sequences, presented as sort of pseudo-historical re-enactments of things witches were purported to do. The film becomes a bit more gruesome, but also darkly humorous. An old witch rips fingers from the hand of a dead thief to make one of her concoctions, which is decidedly gruesome (the scene was cut by Swedish censors), but later tells a woman who wants a love potion to drop some cat feces into his drink (try not to giggle at that one). Things take a turn for the dark (and depraved) when the Devil shows up, and boy, is he repulsive. I have no idea how Christensen’s real face might have looked without his satanic makeup, but his body is hairy and barrel-chested, and his waggling tongue just looks downright dirty. And he is dirty, as we soon see, seducing a woman as she lies in bed with her husband sleeping right beside her, or furiously working a butter churn in a not-very-well-disguised pantomime of masturbation.

The film’s worst atrocities come into play with the introduction of the Inquisition, as we see innocent women betrayed by other women who want to save their own skin. The scenes of a beggar woman being tortured are harsh by any decade’s standards, and the extreme close-ups of her face, and the agony it betrays, are forerunners of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. (Those close-ups were also cut by early censors, which is a sign of how great the acting is—that mere faces were deemed too brutal, as they betrayed the severity of the torture so explicitly). There’s plenty more torture to come. A young monk is flogged as punishment for sinful thoughts, and again, we see his face in close-up. It’s not a way of shying from the violence (we are later shown his stripes), but of driving home the agony.

A witch's body being marked by a demon.

And there’s a stew of salacious stuff left to depict. Witches transforming into cats to sneak out at night to defecate in altars. Women stomping on crosses and giving birth to demons. Nuns given over to mass insanity. Christenson doesn’t miss a thing if it seems shocking, which is why it seems so strange (especially by modern standards) that he ends the film as he does. The director points out that women accused of witchcraft in older times were often just old ladies with unappealing features that made them targets: humpbacks, or tremors, for example. Often they were suffering from mental illnesses. Today, though, they are taken in by nursing homes and charity organizations.

Young women fare less well, though, in this enlightened year of 1922, though Christensen presents their difficulties and the “modern” treatment as sort of a “Gee whiz, look how lucky we are today” coda. He talks about “hysterical” women—a term we know encompassed anything from an array of mental issues to simply being vocal or opinionated—and how today they are detained and treated in a clinic. Today we know a bit about what those treatments may have been, which makes this ending to the film one of accidental horror. “It would be a pity if your daughter were to have an unpleasant exchange with the police,” says a doctor, before committing a woman’s daughter to confinement and treatment. 

Haxan may be full of atrocities, but relax: it's art.

Häxan was cut down and re-released in 1968 with a bizarre narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz soundtrack, and it’s this version that made the rounds of college film festivals and underground film nights. I highly recommend watching the full, uncut version, though, with its original title cards and classical soundtrack with Wagner and Chopin. No need to feel guilty: this is smart smut.

You can watch Häxan for free on Hulu, or buy it on DVD or instant streaming at Amazon.

This is post #3 for Film Dirt’s 31 Days of Silent Horror Films. See the link for the full list of films so far.