Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Retro Review: HӒXAN (1922)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, your weekly look at the best and worst of cinema before the year 2000. This week, we're going way, way, WAY back to 1922 to take a look at the proto-horror "documentary"...HӒXAN!

The 1920's were a formative time for horror as a film genre. As the tail end of the silent film era, the decade saw classics of silent horror (Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera, ect). One such film, which was particularly unique in its format, was the 1922 pseudo-documentary, Häxan, a film that dramatizes historical accounts and folklore surrounding witchcraft and demonic possession. As a film, Häxan straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, delivering a unique hybrid between the two while also bringing to life some unsettling, at times goofy, but often otherworldly imagery. It's not entirely aged well, but it's a fascinating historical artifact for both the evolution of horror as well as the evolution of popular perception of witchcraft.

Häxan is a documentary separated into individual chapters that deal with different aspects of magic and demons. Many of these sections, especially at the start and the conclusion, are presented as something akin to a college lecture. These sections feature original art depicting historical folklore about demons, accompanied by narration in the form of inner-titles. This being silent film, of course, the inner titles with text are a necessary evil, and unfortunately have a big part in the film feeling somewhat dated than even some of its contemporaries. Whereas some other films have action going on between the brief inner-titles (as well as a lot of visual storytelling taking the burden off of those titles), the format of these sections make the film feel, at times, a bit too much like a history class. For these portions, it's not unreasonable to see some viewers getting bored. 

Other parts of the film, however, are presented as dramatization. The film is mostly made up of these dramatizations which are either retelling events such as the Salem Witch Trials or portraying/speculating on events of which there is no concrete knowledge of, such as the witches ceremonies with the demons. These dramatizations give us a more concrete way to relate to the events being discussed, as well as take some of the storytelling burden off of the inner-titles and onto the actors. These sections function more like a traditional silent film, and thus are a bit easier to get into for viewers than the introductory and conclusion scenes. These scenes are also very convincingly acted and shot, with the sets looking very realistic and the events being portrayed with an otherworldly, almost dreamlike quality to them. The costumes and make-up on the devils and demons 
are suitably grotesque, and should easily please a moviegoer looking for something dark and demonic. 

As a whole, Häxan is a very interesting film. It's an interesting step in the evolution of horror and it's interesting in its structure. It's not entirely something I'd recommend to just any film fan, but if you have an appreciation for old-school horror, gothic imagery, and can appreciate a good silent film, there's plenty here to like. It takes the viewer back to a time where the mysteries of the universe were a bit more obscured and the darkness seemed all the more menacing.

Tony's Score: 8/10

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