(a.k.a. HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES; HEKSEN; THE WITCHES)
Benjamin Christensen's (THE MYSTERIOUS X) seminal meditation on the history of witchcraft, shot in mock documentary fashion, is over 80 years old and remains as challenging and perplexing as ever to this day.
The film begins in sombre mood, with intertitles explaining that this is a probe into the hysteria that has surrounded the belief of witchcraft through the ages - and things begin in olden times with sepia-tinted slideshows, drawings then images of loose women believed to be of evil designs.
It all starts off tame and rather po-faced in manner, but as HAXAN develops it becomes increasingly apparent that it - essentially a series of arresting vignettes with no common plot or characters but a connecting theme of all things occultist - is also a subtle comedy, taking swipes at organised religion, media-led paranoia and hypocritical laws.
While the tone of HAXAN becomes lighter as it races along, paradoxically the film also gets darker visually and is alarmingly graphic in its inventive visuals at times.
The torture of "possessed" nuns is eyebrow-raising, while the odd flash of nudity feels naughtier here than any sleazy hardcore porno could aspire to be. It's an odd, undoubtedly accidental achievement on Christensen's part - marking the film out as one that transcends it's age and holds up extremely well in terms of atmosphere, imagination and striking set-pieces.
Look out for Christensen, too, in a standout scene where he himself plays Satan.
Lyrical, bold, original to this day, and quietly gripping in an aesthetic way - those expecting a conventional plot and timeline will be disappointed - HAXAN remains one of the most essential horror films ever made. And yet it belongs much more in the arthouse category than with the likes of HALLOWEEN or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Tartan UK have given the film a great service here on its British DVD debut.
The film's presented uncut in it's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with original Swedish intertitles and optional English subtitles. Images are a mix of black-and-white and sepia, and look superb. Of course there's the occasional specks and a little grain, but by-and-large this is a pleasingly sharp and bright presentation that belies the film's age.
The audio is a mixed bag. A Danish 5.0 soundtrack sounds a little contrived, while newly conceived soundtracks from Brontt Industries Kapital (in 2.0 and 5.1) and Geoff Smith (in 2.0) fare better, particularly in the case of the 2.0 mixes.
Static menu pages include a scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 16 chapters.
The only extra feature on offer is the very worthwhile addition of the abridged alternate version of the film that was released theatrically in America in 1968, under the title WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES.
Essentially a shorter version of the film with rescoring and a (completely unnecessary) narration added courtesy of cult writer William S Burroughs, this is an oddity that is indispensable for fans who are interested in the full chequered history of Christensen's enigmatic masterpiece. Again presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is a very solid affair - almost on a par with HAXAN's presentation.
The 2.0 audio scrubs up fine, although there's no scene-selection menu or optional subtitles in this case.
Of course, this is great stuff for those who have not embraced multi-region DVD yet. But for those who have, the big shadow hanging over Tartan UK's otherwise excellent release is that the Criterion R1 is better, offering not only both versions of the film but a commentary, Christensen's 1941 introduction to his film and more.
A rare treat, HAXAN is a landmark of not only horror but of film in general and deserves its place in any serious fan's collection. It's aged very well indeed, and although it's a tad too long and unintentionally amusing in places, it's still more ambient and memorable than 99% of the dreck currently saturating the genre.
Tartan's disc is a more than respectable affair (tainted somewhat, as mentioned above, by Criterion's superior release) and makes an ideal accompaniment to FAB Press' excellent tome HAXAN by Jack Stevenson, which needs to be read alongside the film so you can further appreciate just what went into making this classic - and the importance of it's legacy ever since.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Tartan|
|Region All - PAL|
|see main review|