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Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

1926’s The Student of Prague, also known as The Man Who Cheated Life, is a remake of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1913 film, which starred Paul Wegener, was directed by Stellen Rye, and which had been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839). The film is directed by Henrik Galeen, who wrote and co-directed 1915’s The Golem and co-wrote Wegener’s 1920 classic, wrote the screenplay for Nosferatu (1922) and Waxworks (1924), and wrote this screenplay as well. In 1928 he would go on to direct Alraune. In this film Galeen uses some of the tricks learned from Murnau in Nosferatu, such as Scapinelli’s disembodied shadow manipulating physical objects.

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The story is of a Prague student named Balduin who signs a contract with the mysterious Scapinelli, promising him anything in Balduin’s room in exchange for 600,000 florins. To Balduin’s horror, Scapinelli chooses the young man’s reflection and commands the doppelganger to ruin the real Balduin’s reputation and good name. The movie follows the same story-line and structure as Stellen Rye’s original movie but with understandably more flair and sophistication as filmmaking had advanced considerably in the intervening years. Steve Haberman writes of Galeen’s style:

[He] incorporates a Romantic use of natural locations, cinematic subject shots and montage, studio-built landscapes of the mind, chiaroscuro lighting and camera-sensitive acting. Whereas Rye in 1913 staged scenes in a single static shot, like illustrations to a storybook, Galeen marshaled all of the arsenal of cinema to involve the audience emotionally in each moment. The result is one of the most moving and filmically complex works of the German screen. (Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film, pg. 78)

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This film once again reunites Conrad Veidt, who plays Balduin, and Werner Krauss, who plays Scapinelli, both of whom had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Waxworks (1924). Seeing Krauss commanding Veidt’s slow-moving double draws direct parallels to their earlier Caligari and somnambulist roles, both in their spirit and in their mannerisms. Veidt, in particular, carries the central role well and, as always, hands in a master-class performance. The sets are designed by Herman Warm, who created the exquisite Expressionist sets for Caligari, and though more realistic are perfectly suited to enhance both the mundane and fantastical elements of the film.

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Unfortunately, as of this writing the only copy currently available is a poor VHS transfer from Alpha Video, and The Student of Prague is a film that deserves a good print. It’s a solid movie which effectively uses special effects to bring the haunting story to the screen.

Grade: B-

Work Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

The Student of Prague is available on DVD.

Movie Review – Unfriended (2014)

Movie Review – Unfriended (2014)

2013’s The Den was a horror film that took a novel approach, being told entirely through web-feeds, computer and phone screens, and security cameras. 2014’s Unfriended, from director Levan Gabriadze  and writer Nelson Greaves, embraces a similar scenario, taking place entirely on a teenage girl’s laptop screen as she uses social networking to talk with friends, all of whom become the target of a vengeful spirit haunting their computers. If that last sentence made you want to entirely avoid this film, I deeply sympathize. However, if you can overcome initial skepticism and endure shitty teenagers for around 80 minutes, Unfriended does certain story aspects incredibly well, making the film ultimately worth checking out.

Though The Den was first to adopt an exclusively technological approach in its storytelling, Unfriended actually succeeds in making the process more fluid and natural. It’s a film that understands and utilizes the technology to surprisingly effective degrees, and teen viewers especially are likely to have no problem following the busy laptop screen. Filmed in one house with each of the cast members located in different rooms, the actors acted out their roles in single long takes and were encouraged to improvise. The result is believable performances and some clever story elements and scenarios.

What Unfriended does best is address the devastating, unrelenting nature of cyber-bullying while also showcasing how people will be cordial when speaking face-to-face but vindictive and malicious when communicating through a social media platform, often in the same moment. The laptop screen we follow is Blaire’s, performed convincingly by Shelley Hennig, and we learn about her character through her digital footprint and those times in which she begins to type something before thinking better of it and deleting it. It is these elements which are the strongest.

Unfriended isn’t as strong when it comes to the horror elements, and some of the scares come off as a bit too tame and unintentionally goofy, but they’re forgivable hiccups for a film that rises above its simple subject matter and treats its story with more thought and insight than is generally expected from a teen horror film.

Grade: C+

Unfriended is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

The film that billed itself as “The First Horror Monster Musical” was fifteen years later described by Stephen King as “… an abysmal wet fart of a picture” (Danse Macabre 164). Filmed in Connecticut, The Horror of Party Beach (1964) sought to cash in on the popularity of both the Roger Corman-style shockers and beach party movies by combining the two genres, complete with rock ‘n’ roll tunes, biker gangs, and “beach blanket boppers in their bikinis and ball-huggers.” When director Del Tenney passed away in 2013, the Stamford Advocate had this to say: “Connecticut had its own Ed Wood, an actor, director and entrepreneur named Del Tenney who made a series of truly awful pictures in the Stamford area during the 1960s, the most notorious of which is Horror of Party Beach, a 1964 drive-in quickie about an atomic mutation that terrorizes Stamford (“party beach” was actually Shippan Point).”

The story tells of creatures created by dumped toxic waste who come ashore to kill beach-goers – young people dumb enough to continually return to the site of danger to display their bad 60s beach fashion, bad 60s beach dancing, and bad 60s innuendos. The monsters are a far cry from the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and look stiff and made from papier-mâché. Tenney directs the film with the grace of someone who just discovered the features on their new camcorder as zooms are continuously and needlessly overused. Add to this an offensive mammy stereotype that makes it difficult to believe that The Civil Rights Act would be signed just a few months after the film’s release. Finally, we get some original music by The Del-Aires, although the drummer is conspicuously absent despite our clearly hearing percussion.

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Nevertheless, even Stephen King was willing to grant it some credit for being ahead of its time (and not just by foreseeing the popularity of motorcycle movies). King sees some credibility, albeit unintentional, in the film’s pointing towards the impending danger in how we dispose of nuclear waste:

“The fact that they created a film which foresaw a problem that would become very real ten miles down the road was only an accident… but an accident, like Three Mile Island, that perhaps had to happen, sooner or later. I find it quite amusing that this grainy, low-budget rock ‘n’ roll horror picture arrived at ground zero with its Geiger counters clicking long before The China Syndrome was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye.”

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, as the saying goes, and it takes only a little seemingly insignificant spark to reveal spilled gasoline. But we don’t go to movies like The Horror of Party Beach to be stimulated intellectually – we’re looking for other parts of the body to be stimulated. While it’s goofy and tame today, it was sort of sexy stuff back then. For modern viewers, however, it at least still passes for tasteless entertainment.

Movie Review – The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Movie Review – The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

“Braaiins!” That one line is practically synonymous with cinematic zombies, and the idea that the undead are out to consume gray mater has inextricably entered the general public’s accepted mythos surrounding the creatures. Most of them would be surprised to learn, however, that this element did not originate with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead or any of the zombie films which followed in the 1970s, but was actually not introduced until 1985’s horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead.

The film’s birth stems from interesting circumstances. After co-writing Night of the Living Dead, John Russo parted ways with George A. Romero and entered a legal battle over who retained the rights to the phrase “living dead.” Russo won the rights and in 1978 he published a novel entitled The Return of the Living Dead, which takes place directly after the 1968 film. Looking to adapt the story to the screen, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) was originally brought on to direct before aborting to make another project. Dan O’Bannon, who had penned the story for Alien (1979), had been hired to rework the script and when Hooper left he was offered the job, which he accepted on the condition that he could significantly alter the script so as to make it distinct from the world which Romero had created. He accomplished this by adding humor and dramatically changing the rules. The film would be O’Bannon’s feature film directorial debut.

O’Bannon distances himself from Romero while also paying homage to him, directly referencing Night of the Living Dead in the film. In the story, two medical supply warehouse workers, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews), accidentally release toxic gas from a barrel which houses a corpse. The fumes not only infect the men but also cause the dead to rise and hunger for brains in order to alleviate their pain. Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends – characters who are a mix of post-punk and new wave sensibilities – hang out in a nearby cemetery waiting for him to get out, and are in the thick of things when the corpses start crawling from their graves.

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The zombies in this film are not mindless. They talk, problem solve, and set traps for victims. They are aggressive, fast, and unrelenting. Each attempt to destroy them seems to only make them stronger, and each effort to solve the problem only exacerbates the chaos. Considering certain elements of the film, this could easily be read as a satire on the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, as the war-head solutions of the rival nations are perhaps more dangerous than the conflicts which initially spawn their seeming necessity. Our supposed protectors may very well prove to be our greatest threats. The film’s cynical and nihilistic view of the military would support such a reading.

The Return of the Living Dead is often referred to as the “punk-rock zombie” film, and it’s easy to see why. O’Bannon leaves 1968 far behind in terms of style, bringing zombies and their victims firmly into the 1980s. Unlike many other films from the era, the soundtrack of punk and deathrock bands still holds up. The young adults, with obnoxious names like Trash (Linnea Quigley) and Suicide (Mark Venturini), are disenfranchised and dissatisfied with what the world has to offer, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. As Suicide says of his leather and chains attire: “You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life.” They mention several times that they’re afraid of being shot by the cops. But for all their outward appearance of rebellion these punks are fairly tame and feel misunderstood by society, in a manner defying their earlier cinematic depictions as malicious anarchists. When Scuz (Brian Peck) suggests they wait for Freddy in the cemetery, Spider (Miguel Núñez) asks, “What do you want to do, Scuz, turn over gravestones?” To which he replies, “No, I just want to look around the graveyard – I never seen one before.” When in the graveyard they party, and we get that famous gravestone striptease from the delicious Linnea Quigley, but they do no damage to the graveyard. Later, when Spider is trying to flee the zombies and find refuge in one of the buildings, he’s asked by someone inside if he’s on PCP. “Nobody’s on any drugs, man!” he calls back truthfully, “Just let us in!” The Return of the Living Dead is certainly a punk-rock zombie movie, but it’s made in an era when the punk had become mundane and normal, and had lost its former edge. The following year’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) derives much of its humor from this very fact. These punks act out because they don’t feel like they belong in society, or that their lifespans are destined to be short due to nuclear war, toxic waste, or pollution – Trash’s obsession with death likely stems from this – and O’Bannon’s script offers nothing to quell these fears.

The Return of the Living Dead 1985 still

Yet in the end, the punks are largely peripheral characters. The majority of the story focuses on two middle-aged protagonists: Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson, the owner of the medical supply business, and Don Calfa as Ernie Kaltenbrunner, a mortician who the film subtly suggests is a former Nazi (O’Bannon maintains that naming these two heroes Burt and Ernie was entirely coincidental and had nothing to do with the Sesame Street muppets). Burt and Ernie try their best to cope with the situation and bring it to a satisfactory end. Their characters are well-written – Ernie reacts realistically to Burt’s initial reluctance to reveal the gravity of their quagmire and Burt is quick to try to get medical help for his employees when he finds out they’re sick, the consequences be damned. Together the two characters anchor the increasing frenzy around them and allow for level-headed, experienced personalities to confront the undead – the other characters merely react while these two try to be proactive against them, perhaps giving due respect to a generation that fought against fascism and communism with a can-do attitude, even by acknowledging the dangerous byproducts of that active zeal. For all the mohawks and safety pins, in a film touted as a punk-rock movie it’s these older men who support the main narrative. They’re like the teens from the 1950s monster movies all grown up.

The Return of the Living Dead boasts some good creature effects, particularly what has become known as the “Tarman” zombie. Additionally, the cast is strong, and many will certainly recognize many of the actors from other horror films which were released around the same time. James Karen and Thom Mathews especially give sympathetic performances as they succumb to the necrotic effects of the toxins. All of these elements – the music, the style, the directing, the acting, and the smartly humorous script – make for a film that still has the power to entertain. It retains its youthful energy and gives viewers a combination of mild exploitation coupled with a grounded maturity. It’s still punk-rock, but the fogies have come to the jam session to class the joint up a bit, and the film is better for it.

Grade: A-

The Return of the Living Dead is available on Blu-ray.

Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)

Cinema, as an entertainment medium, is a balance between storytelling and visuals. Some movies strike a harmonious balance while others, particularly genre films, tend to lean towards one aspect or the other, often to the movie’s detriment. Horror movies, in particular, not always but generally rely more upon the images on the screen than upon the strength of the story being told. However, there are some movies where the visuals are so captivating that the story, present though muddled into incoherence, becomes almost unnecessary. A Page of Madness (1926), directed by Japanese filmmaker Teinosuke Kinugasa, is such a film.

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It is perhaps a small miracle that we still have it. Most of Japan’s silent films are lost forever. Already accustomed to moving pictures via the tradition of Magic Lantern shows, the country’s foray into cinema began in 1897, and the following year they were making ghost movies. Heavily influenced by traditional theater, cinemas began incorporating benshis who became integral parts of the filmmaking industry. These performers, following a rich tradition of oral storytelling, would narrate the silent films, often accompanied by music, spouting the dialogue of characters, explaining scenes, or sometimes even informing the audience of scenes that were missing. They gave viewers an immersive peek into the filmmaking process. With the rise of talkies, the benshi’s place quickly waned. Yet they alone would not disappear. The early twentieth century was not kind to film – almost no one saw the merit in preserving it, and the nitrate film quickly decayed, particularly in Japan’s humid climate. The earthquake of 1923 sent many more movies into the nether, but perhaps no eater of films was as voracious as the U.S. bombers that rained fire and destruction upon Tokyo in World War II.

Originally released in 1926, the movie was lost until Kinugasa found it in his storehouse in 1971. The movie was unlike anything Japan was producing at the time. Movies in that era were played in one of two types of the theaters: ones that played foreign films and ones that played domestic films, which were generally viewed as inferior. Kinugasa took inspiration from outside Japan, particularly among the French and German Expressionist directors, and A Page was a rare domestic product which played in Japan’s foreign theaters.

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It was a collaborative effort of talented writers and artists. Yasunari Kawabata, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, wrote the original story, which would be elaborated upon by Kinugasa and others. Kinugasa then worked with a group of avant-garde performers known as the School of New Perceptions (Shinkankaku-ha), who, to save money, often slept on set over the course of the month-long filming. The star of the movie, Masao Inoue, forwent pay in order to support its making.

The print today is missing nearly a third of its original state, and the lack of inter-titles makes the story confusing at times. The famous benshi Musei Tokugawa narrated the film at its premiere, but without this element to guide modern viewers some scenes are confusing, or their place within the timeline uncertain. The viewer is left guessing and trying to piece together images like a puzzle which we know is missing pieces. Nevertheless, a story can be salvaged: A man’s wife is placed into a mental asylum after, we can guess from various images (a crying baby in a drain, etc.), she tried to drown a baby. He takes a job as the asylum’s janitor, not revealing his identity, to stay near her, though it appears she is unable to recognize him through her hallucinations. One day his daughter and son arrive to visit their mother, seemingly surprised to see their father there, and we can gather that the daughter is there to announce to her mother her recent engagement. At some point the man has an argument with his daughter which compels him to hatch an escape for his wife, but things don’t go as planned. It’s unclear if the final third of the movie is a representation of the man’s own sanity slipping, or his realization of the repercussions that his actions may cause, though this viewer takes it to be the latter.

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Nevertheless, the story is largely a mystery, but it is also beside the point. It’s the visuals, which continually place the viewer in the skewed perspective of insanity, that make the movie mesmerizing, and the seeming incoherence of the story only serves to emphasize this aspect. A Page of Madness is a combination of influences, most notably the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Weine, which dealt with an asylum and the perceptions of madness, and Abel Gance’s experimental 1915 French film La Folie du Docteur Tube, which used distorting lenses to simulate people being high after inhaling a white powder.

A Page begins like a fever dream, with images of an elegant dancing woman in a club intercut with a rainstorm and drums and brass instruments. Gradually the viewer realizes that the music and elegant setting is in the head of a tattered dancing girl in an asylum, played by the captivatingly beautiful Eiko Minami. Though the film is silent, the images and rapid rhythmic editing make the viewer disorientated and think that they too can hear the drums. From there the movie slides back and forth between sobriety and unhinged indulgence, depending on whose eyes the lens is peering through. It’s an experience that, though the viewer is not quite sure what they saw or how to explain it, will linger.

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Grade: A-

A Page of Madness is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

Movie Review – House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Movie Review – House of the Long Shadows (1983)

English filmmaker Pete Walker, known for his tasteless horror and sexploitation movies during the late 1960s and 1970s, which purposefully pushed the nerves of Tory conservatives, took as his last feature film project a rather tame but historically notable affair. 1983’s House of the Long Shadows, based on the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers and adapted as a screenplay by Michael Armstrong, is an Old Dark House tale that would be conventionally boring if not for the presence of three horror titans – Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee – along with genre veteran John Carradine, in the only film in which all men share the screen. The pedigrees of these actors are legendary, with Price having formed the centerpiece of William Castle’s movies, Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, and many of AIP’s most successful outings, and Cushing and Lee being the consummate faces of Britain’s Hammer and Amicus films. Indeed, these three men were the very faces of horror during the 1960s until the genre took a different turn in the early 1970s.

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Carradine, Lee, Price, and Cushing.

House of the Long Shadows fits well in the traditions of both Hammer and Amicus, and thus feels like a loving, intentional throwback to earlier times, forsaking the teen-centered slashers that were then in their heyday. The actors are terrific in their roles, each getting to play a character that fits well with their acting styles and on-screen personas. Price especially chews the scenery with his loquacious dialogue while Cushing is sympathetic as a nervous, guilt-ridden drunkard. Lee, of course, is at turns perfectly regal and sinister. Carradine is also fine, though he is given less to do. Also present is one of Walker’s favorites in their last film together, Sheila Keith.

These are reasons alone to see this film, however, they’re also the only thing likely to keep one’s attention. The build-up to the story is languorous, bordering on tedious, and the lead performance by Dezi Arnaz, Jr. leaves a lot to be desired (and makes me imagine what a young Tom Hanks might have done with the role). His co-star, Julie Peasgood, fairs only slightly better. When all four veteran actors are finally on screen the movie begins to move along smoothly, but the ending – and some plot elements – becomes needlessly convoluted. Despite Walker’s reputation, the filming here is fairly chaste, yet several times the screen was so dark I couldn’t make out what was happening.

This is far from the best film any of these men have been in, but it’s a workable sendoff to bookend their long, storied careers as the biggest names in horror – this is also the last film that Cushing and Lee would appear in together. For those who truly appreciate what seeing these men together means, I must recommend this film; for those who could care less, there’s not much here to see. However, I for one thought that hearing Price cattily call Lee a “bitch” near the end was worth the long slog to get there.

Grade: C

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Creeping Terror (1964)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Creeping Terror (1964)

By 1964 Stirling Silliphant was a respected writer for television and would go on to write some of the most popular movies of the 1960s and 70s. His two brothers, Robert and Allan Silliphant, also wanted to break into the movie industry and Allan wrote/produced one of cinema history’s most bizarre films, The Creeping Terror, though practically nothing of what made it to the screen was how he had envisioned it. They teamed up with director A.J. Nelson, who went by the moniker Vic Savage and who, unbeknownst to them, used their brother’s pedigree to lure in potential investors, often paying Savage a few hundred dollars in return for bit parts. Essentially, Savage was a con-man, a sociopathic egomaniac (starring in the film himself), and a drug-addicted sadist looking to make a quick buck. When they realized their association would hurt their brother’s reputation, the Silliphants backed out of the project. However, just before the release of the film Savage was sued and, facing possible jail time for fraud, fled. Savage’s misdeeds are chronicled in the aptly named docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera (2014). He would die in 1975 of liver failure. Eerily, Savage would not be the only connection to crime that the film would have, as the assistant director was Hollywood stuntman Randy Starr. It would be Starr’s gun that would be used by the Manson family in the Sharon Tate murders in 1969.

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Vic Savage, the real creep.

If there’s a thread of commonality between many of these terrible films from the 1960s, it’s the absence of live sound as a cost-saving measure. Like The Beast of Yucca Flats, Savage filmed the movie silently and added audio later, and not very well as the lips often do not match up. The long stretches of silence with occasional voiceover recall those educational videos from the 1950s, though there’s far less continuity to be found here. And here’s a question: did we really need the scene of a mother giving her baby a rectal thermometer?

Regardless, these shortcomings pale in comparison the majesty of awfulness that is the monster, which is basically a slow, awkwardly shuffling bundle of carpet and fabric that makes Star Trek’s horta look like a masterpiece of creature effects. It’s languid pace is not a problem for the teen-hungry creature because nobody in this movie knows how to run, walk, or roll away from it. We see a woman laying on a blanket, screaming as it takes its time getting to her. It’s the kind of stuff you see in parodies of monster films, but not in monster films themselves. And luckily for the U.S. military, which sets out to incompetently confront the monster, its crashed ship is filled with dials that are labeled in English.

At one point it appears as if we’ve intruded on the plot of another film filled with long scenes of teens dancing goofily at a party until, of course, the creature shuffles in to swallow them and no one is able to find a well-marked exit. Truly, the monster is something that must be seen to be believed, particularly when it humps a car in order to try to flip it, but the rest of the movie is a horrendous mess. The carpet-creature is tasteless entertainment, but the rest is an endurance test, so have the fast-forward button ready.

Movie Review – A Field in England (2013)

Movie Review – A Field in England (2013)

In 1648 the English countryside was host to violent clashes and skirmishes between the Parliamentarian “Roundheads” and the Royalist “Cavaliers”. Their dispute was over the nature of government – who should govern and how – and it called into question that long held belief that kings ruled by divine right, God’s personal decree. The outcome was the trial and execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth, which would in turn become the Orwellian-sounding Protectorate which was overseen by the dictatorial, middle-gentry Oliver Cromwell. An intensely religious man who believed God guided his victories, it’s reasonable to ask whether divine right had indeed been usurped.

It is against this backdrop of class struggle and theological strife that Ben Wheatley’s 2013 film A Field in England takes place, and deals largely with these same philosophical issues as the characters try to find their way in a world where the rules appear to be quickly changing. We follow four deserters as they are accosted by a greedy alchemist and forced to dig for treasure in a barren English field. Psychedelic mushrooms are ingested along the way, creating opportunities for Wheatley to indulge in experimentalist cinema. Wheatley had already gained a reputation as a notable independent filmmaker with the successes that were 2011’s Kill List and 2012’s darkly comical Sightseers. Proving himself versatile and able to expand his craft, he approaches A Field with an art-house eye, filming the tale in black and white and interspersing the telling with surrealist hallucinations and freeze frames, molding a film in the vein of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

The script is written by Amy Jump, and she creates rich dialogue of prose and poo, effectively capturing the historical period while adding depth to the characters. The acting all around is solid, with Reece Shearsmith as the naïve Whitehead, in particular, standing out.

While there’s much to admire about A Field in England, there are times when the experimental quality becomes more obstructing than enriching. The plot can be difficult to discern at times, and the film’s experimental nature can make searching for meaning in many of the scenes an act or futility. At times, the surrealism feels over-indulgent, and it requires a patient and forgiving viewer to stick with the film. I enjoyed my time watching it, yet despite my being a lover of both horror and historical drama, I don’t see this as a film I will return to again and again.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)

The Hercules-like character of Maciste, one of cinema’s oldest recurring characters, first hit Italian screens in the 1914’s Cabiria, with Bartolomeo Pagano playing the central role. Throughout the silent era (27 films starring Pagano before 1927), and again in the 1960s, the physically and morally strong hero was placed in fantastical situations, usually involving evil rulers and black magic, and the macho Maciste needing to rescue a beautiful damsel. It’s all very much the stuff of boys’ pulp fantasies.

On rare occasions Maciste would venture into the horror realm, sometimes literally. In 1925’s Maciste in Hell, the hero (once again played by Pagano) is kidnapped by a demon and sent to the underworld where he must use his bulk to battle his way out. The movie borrows heavily from the images of 1911’s L’Inferno, a feature-length adaptation of Dante’s work in which the author is shown through the levels of Hell via a series of imaginative special effects (coincidentally, it was the first feature length Italian movie and the first feature length film shown in its entirety, in one screening, in the United States). Maciste in Hell borrows that film’s volcanic landscape, the tortured souls chained and tormented by demons, and even the giant Satan snacking on souls like they were milk duds. We even have a giant help the hero get to another level.

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Yet whereas L’Inferno was a serious film, Maciste is an adventurer’s romp where the bruiser smashes his adversaries and smiles at the metal-bikini clad she-devils. Truly, the special effects are both terrific and creative, such as when Maciste punches off a demon’s head, which then lands on a trident and is healed, thrown back to the standing body, and reattached to allow the demon to keep fighting. Other special effects are just as impressive and add to the sense of fun, and any young boy can’t help but smile as Maciste uses his brute force to push a crowd of demons over a precipice.

Where Maciste doesn’t excel is in the story itself, which is understandably simple and geared towards younger viewers, where the line between good and bad is clearly drawn. When the demons take human form they become the mustache-twirling villains in black capes and black top hats that early silent comedies employed as their antagonists, famously tying people to railroad tracks or saw tables. While many people today associate these Snidely Whiplash-like characters with silent cinema, few understand that these archetypes were seen at the time as products of clichéd Victorian melodramas and were used purely to comic effect, and the same is true in Maciste, where they come off more as pranksters trying to get people to blaspheme than truly potent menaces. Children watching the movie could feel confident in resisting them as well as Maciste himself.

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Maciste no doubt influenced and was influenced by pulp fiction, and probably had a hand in creating comic book heroes in the following decade. Likewise, we would begin seeing many of the same tropes in blockbuster cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s, from Princess Leia’s slave attire to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ultra-macho shows of strength, such as in Commando (1985). Likewise, the idea of an otherworldly being playing with their severed head would arise in a movie like Labyrinth (1986).

Maciste in Hell is another example of silent cinema pushing creative boundaries even as it retreads earlier works. With the advent of “talkies” and therefore bulky sound equipment, it became more difficult for filmmakers to create the spectacle of chaos that silent films could muster, where the sounds on stage or at a location didn’t matter. It would be a few more generations before movie technology and directors’ visions could once again catch up to the standards of fantasy set by movies like this.

Grade: B

Movie Review – Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (1990)

Movie Review – Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (1990)

The troubled story of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990), his second feature-length film after 1987’s Hellraiser, is as labyrinthine as it is long. Based on his novella, Cabal, Barker set out to create an adult fairy tale where the monsters are the sympathetic heroes and the humans are the violent aggressors, the latter fueled by their intolerance and insufferable envy. Originally conceived as a trilogy, Nightbreed was to be the first in an epic in the vein of Star Wars.

And then everything that could go wrong apparently did. With the genre being the perpetual whipping boy of Hollywood, the studio did not understand Barker’s mixture of fantasy and horror and cut much of the film at the last minute. It then mis-marketed the film as a slasher. Ultimately, Barker was immensely dissatisfied with the resulting product and Nightbreed went on to receive mostly negative reviews.

In 2009 missing footage was recovered and put back into the film, creating what was called The Cabal Cut and clocking in at over 150 minutes, and was played at various film festivals and reactions were generally favorable. In 2014 yet another version was released through Shout! Factory using recently recovered original film elements. Overseen by Barker, this version would be The Director’s Cut, and can safely be considered the final, definitive version of Barker’s original vision for Nightbreed. As Barker said in an official statement:

“This is film history and beyond my wildest dreams of realization. When Scream Factory told me that they found the NIGHTBREED film footage, I was gob-smacked… There’s never been a reconstruction that’s had as little chance of succeeding and yet has succeeded on as many fronts as this film has. It’s unprecedented. To now have a movie that we can put together in the way that I fully intended it to be seen when I first set out to make this film in 1989 is extraordinary. The project has moved inexorably to this conclusion.”

If one thinks about it, horror has its roots deeply embedded in the fantasy genre, in the ancient myths of monsters and particularly in the fairy tales of witches and naughty children getting their due. Horror fiction is really, and most plainly when it deals with the supernatural, dark fairy tales for adults. When macabre story elements become more visceral they cross the line from innocent childhood anxieties to the fears of a mature mind fully aware of its frail mortality. It then becomes what we would consider true horror, and this acknowledgment of horror’s mature status explains why it is the only genre outside of porn to be considered of an adult realm, at least when taken seriously. Show a child fantasy and sci-fi and people don’t bat an eye, but show them horror and they will seriously call into question your mental and ethical fitness. Ultimately, however, the difference between kids’ fairy tales and adult horror becomes a matter of degrees, and I would be remiss to discount the many examples of films which fall in the middle.

An adult horror fairy tale, therefore, is an idea which should come more naturally to horror filmmakers, or at least embraced more explicitly as Barker does here. Like in Hellraiser, we see themes of unfulfilled desires in the envy of the humans for the monsters’ powers and in the monsters for their wish to walk freely without fear of violent reprisal. Barker sets in motion many elements which immediately put Nightbreed on a solid footing, including music by Danny Elfman and casting the body horror maestro David Cronenberg in the role of Dr. Philip K. Decker, a serial killer who wears a creepy mask and who frames the film’s protagonist, Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer). The film also boasts some imaginative creature designs, some of which admittedly look better than others.

Nightbreed 1990 still

While there are moments of genuine fun and excitement in Nightbreed, it still in many ways feels like an uneven, even rushed film. Decker is menacing, but as the film proceeds it becomes more difficult to discern his motives. He goes from being a crafty, manipulative nemesis to a sloppy, careless slasher in fairly quick time. Decker’s character isn’t the only one who feels underdeveloped. The monsters are underused and there’s little to no character development among them, and this becomes an issue when we’re asked as an audience to sympathize with them. The cops, too, are thinly drawn in a most cartoonish manner. Their commitment to excessive violence and disregard for due process may fit with the simplistic fairy tale theme, but it also makes it difficult to buy into the story. The main problem, however, lies with the character of Boone, our hero. In the end, he’s fairly boring, and unfortunately Sheffer is unable to bring much charisma to the screen.

I feel that if I had seen this movie as an adolescent, it may have really resonated with me. Kids connect with monsters because they recognize their disenfranchisement and they sympathize with how they’re misunderstood and/or underestimated by the adult population. I still connect with them for those same reasons, but I require more story to get me there. When I was eight I saw 1989’s Little Monsters, a movie I really loved at that age (though I suspect it wouldn’t hold up to an adult viewing), and I couldn’t help but think of that film as I watched Nightbreed (which was released a year later, curiously enough, and makes one wonder if Barker was inspired by it). Both films confirm our suspicions that monsters exist below the surface and exploit our desires to live and be among them – to become them, even. Even the creature designs and the underworld in which they inhabit bear striking similarities, though these may be more superficial than my foggy recollection is suggesting. Nevertheless, viewing Nightbreed for the first time now, as a thirty-something, I have difficulty connecting to the characters and feel that the film never comes together or progresses in a convincing manner.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925)

Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925), also known simply as Wolf Blood, is saddled with some modern misconceptions. Firstly, it is often erroneously described as the first werewolf film, but that honor belongs to the now lost The Werewolf from 1913, considered by some to also be the first true Universal monster, though the much later The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1925) would have far greater impact in establishing that studio’s series. The Werewolf involved a Navajo witch who transformed into a wolf to kill white settlers, and then returned a century later to kill again. (Some are even more in error in calling 1935’s Werewolf of London the first werewolf film, but it was merely the first mainstream Hollywood one.) Nevertheless, Wolf Blood can properly be considered the earliest surviving werewolf movie.

Secondly, Wolf Blood is today advertised as a horror film, but really it’s a drama-romance with some werewolf elements coming into play in the second half. It tells of the manager of a logging camp named Dick Bannister who falls in love with his pretty young boss. After a fight with a business rival he requires a blood transfusion, and the only blood available is that of a she-wolf. Worries about the effects soon spring forth and he fears that the blood is changing his brain, edging him ever further toward homicide and madness.

Lycanthropy comes fairly late in the film, more than half-way through. There is no transformation scene. Instead, we see Bannister running through the forest in a fit of madness alongside ghostly wolves. Before the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, American films generally shied away from inserting the sincerely supernatural into their narratives, unlike their German and Scandinavian counterparts. American plots had a tendency to explain away the seemingly supernatural with human agency, misunderstanding, or mental breakdown, and the trend is no different here.

The director and star, George Chesebro, was a regular fixture in B-movie Westerns, often playing a villain. Likewise, his co-stars were also well-known to contemporary Western fans, and the influence of that genre can be felt throughout. Also present are numerous jokes about Prohibition and jazz, as well as a pinch of racism, placing this film firmly within the time in which it was created.

The forest vistas, with the stately pine trees, are beautiful to behold, but the rest of the movie is very dimly lit and at times difficult to discern. The story is simple and the curious ideas about blood transfusion innocently quaint, but there isn’t much to invest the viewer’s attention. I couldn’t find contemporary reviews, but I imagine this was seen as pretty middling-fare even in the 1920s.

Wolf Blood, while not being a bad film, does not have a great deal to offer the modern audience except for its novelty as the longest surviving runt in a very particular pack.

Grade: D

Movie Review – Tusk (2014)

Movie Review – Tusk (2014)

In an early scene in Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014), Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) tells his girlfriend that it was worth it for a guy who lost his leg because he became famous for it. By the middle of the film, Bryton, who had let fame go to his head and now found himself at the mercy of a mad man bent on making him into a walrus, would no doubt wish to retract his former position. This is the overlying message of the film –that personal relationships and being a decent person are more important than money or fame – but one could be forgiven for not seeing past the odd antics that Smith puts on display.

Tusk began as a conversation on Smith’s SModcast podcast where they riffed on an idea inspired by an actual news article and reached out to listeners to decide if a film should be made about it. This is certainly not the strongest basis on which to found a film, but it makes for an interesting experiment, and an experiment is perhaps the best way to approach the movie.

Smith has a legion of loyal fans who will defend him to Judgment Day as well as detractors who are equally as vehement in their opposition. Smith’s movies were an important part of my formative years in the 90s, and of his films that I’ve seen and had occasion to revisit, I’ve liked about half of them. This puts me about dead-center in the Smith debate, which is a way of saying that I was neither expecting to love nor hate this film upon sitting down to watch it. I’d certainly heard strong opinions on both sides, but I cleared my mind as best I could and was determined to give it as fair a chance as possible.

There’s a lot in this film that works. Firstly, it’s well-cast: Justin Long does a convincing job in his reactions and emotional transitions and Michael Parks as the Dr. Frankenstein-like walrus-lover Howard Howe commands the screen each time he’s present. Smith appears to take some inspiration from Quentin Tarantino with long scenes of dialogue between animated characters, and those between Long and Parks really work, especially when Howe is recounting his oceanic adventures to a slowly drugged Bryton. Some of the absurdist comedy sticks, and I admit to laughing aloud at a few scenes, particularly at an unexpected walrus battle late in the film.

All that being said, there is just as much in the film that doesn’t work, and these closely relate to what has already been said. The long dialogues which come later in the film drag on too long and pale in comparison to the former. A certain flashback scene involving an overly-acted Québécois detective and the killer is painful to watch. Also, the humor involving Canada and the “ugly American” stereotype falls flat. Lastly, Smith should be commended for going “full walrus” in this film, but the narrative begins to stutter and scenes feel more and more like filler as the film shuffles to its rather unsatisfying conclusion.

Like a shoddily stitched walrus suit, Tusk is an uneven amalgam that manages to remain interesting even when it’s struggling to remain afloat. There’s some good filmmaking on display, but to enjoy it requires considerable viewer patience and good will to see it through.

Grade: C+

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Is there a more famous “bad movie” than Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, or a more infamous director than Ed Wood, who had a 1994 biopic made about him by none other than Tim Burton which starred Johnny Depp? Uwe Boll is certainly bad and well-known, but Ed Wood’s Plan 9 was the holy grail of bad films for generations of tasteless movie connoisseurs and continues to be the standard by which all other schlock is judged. And rightly so.

Plan 9 From Outer Space 1959 still2

Though released in 1959, Plan 9 didn’t receive the negative recognition we’ve come to associate with it until it was chosen as the “worst movie ever made” by Michael and Harry Medved in their 1980 book The Gold Turkey Awards. Stephen King has written negatively about the movie for what he perceived as its exploitation of a morphine-racked Bela Lugosi. Indeed, Lugosi was about as far from his glory days of 1931’s Dracula, or from his fame as a premiere actor in his native Hungary preceding that time, than one could get when he died in 1956. Before he passed, however, he had performed some silent test footage with Wood for what was intended to be Tomb of the Vampire, some of it outside actor Tor Johnson’s home, who would also appear in Plan 9 (nor is this the last time we’ll see Johnson on this list). Rather than discard that meager footage, Wood built Plan 9 around it and cast his wife’s chiropractor to play Lugosi’s double even though he looked nothing like the actor, covering his lower face with a cape. What King saw as exploitation may have been tribute, as Wood and Lugosi allegedly became close in the actor’s final years.

Nevertheless, that Wood was in a sense making Lugosi’s last movie attracted many actors to the project who’s better judgment would have otherwise kept them at bay, such as Maila Nurmi, more famously known as the wasp-like Vampira, TV’s incredibly influential first horror host. Nurmi reportedly insisted that her character be mute because she found the dialogue dreadful.

Plan 9 From Outer Space 1959 still

Ed Wood is what one gets when they combine enthusiasm and determination with absolutely no talent or taste. Plan 9 manages to be a fast-paced, entertaining ride mostly because it never sits still. It’s easy to count the short-comings, such as the bizarre rambling narration by Wood’s friend, the eccentric and famously inaccurate psychic Criswell (“And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future”), and well as the cheap sets, the bad acting, the pathetically poor costumes and special effects, and lack of editing continuity as sequences go from night to day to night again, and so on. Plan 9 is a bad film, undoubtedly, but it’s never a boring one.

Movie Review – +1 (2013)

Movie Review – +1 (2013)

What would you do if you were confronted with your doppelganger? Attack it? Embrace it? Feel disgust or fear? Feel compelled to protect it? 2013’s +1 doesn’t dwell too ponderously on these questions and the possible answers, but it does touch upon them in interesting ways. One exchange in particular illustrates the opposing views. One characters states, “From the Book of Talmud: to meet oneself is… is to meet God.” To which another character responds, “Yeah, well in my book to meet God means to be dead.” Our own agendas and perceptions ultimately determine how we see ourselves and whether we fear or embrace change.

The late Oxford scholar of German Language and Literature S.S. Prawer has written of the doppelganger motif in horror, in reference to the essay “Der Doppelganger” (1925) by Otto Rank, one of Freud’s followers, that “the Doppelganger represents, in the first instance, the hidden part of ourself… but it also revives primitive beliefs in the independent, almost bodily, existence of our soul, mirror and puppet magic, demons or gods who amuse themselves by taking on our shapes – and all of these combine to produce a shudder that is full of dim memories” (Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, 118). +1, in one way or another, touches upon all these various aspects of our fears of confronting our doubles.

+1 2013 still

Dennis Iliadis’s film takes a subgenre of film that, in my opinion, reached its nadir in the mid-1990s – the teen-party-sex-comedy where a house party becomes a crucible for cartoonish characters to discover themselves as they stumble upon or seek out love. 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait is a prime example. Though that film was meant to be a defining feature of my generation’s high school years, I never connected with it. It felt insincere and hollow, and the characters mere shadows of real people meant to represent me and my friends. I was pleased, then, to see Iliadis take that same basic scenario, with comparable characters, and have the mirror come to them, resulting in often violent confrontations.

+1 is a surprisingly beautiful film, with photography by Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. It’s also tightly crafted, allowing for repetition and visual cues to let us know where things stand in terms of the original characters and their doubles. Iliadis takes a risk by giving us an increasingly unlikable central character in David (Rhys Wakefield), but it pays off by giving the traditional teen-party-romance ending a macabre twist. Plus, we get some depth to characters normally relegated to clichés, such as Teddy (Logan Miller), who takes the opposite track from David by becoming increasingly more relatable, or Melanie (Natalie Hall), who goes from the trope of “Hot Chick at the party that Horny Teen wants to fuck” to a viable character with interesting and ambiguous turns.

Though classified as sci-fi, don’t look for science here, as it’s never the story’s focus, nor does it try to explain the source of the doubling in realistic terms. It might as well have been done by an incantation, as the plot would remain the same. The doppelganger is a source of horror going back to the genre’s first feature length film, 1913’s The Student of Prague. +1 updates the idea and allows for more variation, but the scenario forcibly pushes the characters to indulge and act upon their generally dark desires, impulses, and fears. It’s the horror of looking yourself in the eyes and making the judgment we all fear to make.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – Häxan (1922)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Häxan (1922)

Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen received rave reviews for his 1916 film Blind Justice when it toured in America. While showing the film to prisoners at Sing Sing in Ossining, New York, one convict knifed another, deeply disturbing Christensen. When discussing the incident with famed prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne during his brief but influential tenure as the warden, he was told that even the most career criminals possessed an emotional humanity that could be reached through the right methods. From this meeting, “Christensen began to think about how a belief in absolute evil caused mankind to dehumanize and persecute those with mental illness, deformity, and in poverty” (Steve Haberman, Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, pg. 84).

In 1919, in a Berlin bookshop, Benjamin Christensen found a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century treatise on witch persecution, and spent the next two years studying the history of witchcraft, determined to make an entirely new kind of film that would serve to explore the subject. The causal link between the historical Inquisition and inmate treatment in the modern world, being ignorance and inhumanity, was a pronounced and natural one. Häxan (1922), also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages, is certainly one of the most unconventional films of the silent era, and for a viewer today the experience will be a unique one. Really a horror-docudrama about witchcraft, the film is at turns academic, horrifying, hilarious, and ultimately sobering.

HŠxan (1922) Filmografinr: 1922/06

Christensen takes a rationalist’s approach to witchcraft. He first approached scholars to help him with his film, but the low culture stigma of cinema and the unsavory subject matter meant their refusal. Left to his own devices, the first part of the film is Christensen’s own semi-scholarly lecture complete with artwork, moving diagrams, and a kickass mechanical model of hell. He explains the views of the pre-scientific world and how they shaped people’s absurd ideas about witches. He states, “The belief in evil spirits, sorcery and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” Based only upon this dry but nevertheless interesting opening, one might be forgiven for thinking this film will be dull, and they would be entirely, tragically wrong. While he does this presentation, he shows titillating and scandalous images from woodcuts and paintings, promising to show them to us with actors in due time. Christensen is a true showman who is building anticipation in his audience.

The second part is where the dramatic reenactments begin, and this is when the film gets trippy. Here Christensen shows us what medieval people believed was happening, not what truly was. The production quality is superb and is certainly some of the finest to be seen in the silent era. The attention to detail in the costumes, sets, lighting, and especially make-up is extraordinary, especially when Christensen himself enters the scene as the horny horned trickster Satan, with mottled skin and a darting tongue. Heavy with sexual overtones and libidinal metaphors – demons vigorously churn butter in obvious imitation of masturbation – the film features discreet but nevertheless tantalizing nudity and Christensen’s images continually fly in the face of accepted decency. As Steve Haberman writes, “the overall impression is of sex stripped of beauty and romance and made monstrously vile” (pg. 86). Häxan was the most expensive Swedish film up to that point and the effort shows. The quality of the make-up effects and props are not just surprising because of the era, but because they’re superior to most of what would come after for the next few generations. Additionally, there is even included an impressive stop-motion animation of a small demon tearing through a door.

haxan 5

The next part of the film is concerned with the realities of historical witch-hunts and how the infectious nature of accusations was inescapable and how they ruined countless lives. While Christensen employed horror imagery earlier, here he presents us with the true source of horror: ignorance and irrationality. Under the Inquisition the Church becomes a hell on Earth, complete with rotten-toothed, sadistic clergy and all the tortures the human mind can conjure. We see men of science accused of devilry and innocent women suffering for the lust they drive in men. Satan and witches are not horrifying, but the irrational mind frame which creates them is, and therefore “Christensen relates the Church to both ignorance and sadism, giving the impression that religion at its core is inseparable from evil” (Haberman, pg. 88). He mirrors the earlier scenes of demons with those of the clergy, visually driving home the view that they were essentially cut from the same blood-soaked ecclesiastical cloth. The sexual repression of the priests is displaced into deviance and perversion, and women – whose countenances so tempted them – are the objects of their unnatural release.

Finally, the film ends with an examination of modern medicine and offers some scientific explanations for the myths surrounding witches. Attention is especially paid to hysteria (in part what we would today call “conversion disorder”), which was seen as an exclusively female disorder from the nineteenth century until around the time this film was released, when Sigmund’s Freud’s theories were in vogue. Here Christensen is not only offering rational alternatives, but also criticizing the contemporary treatment of women and the less fortunate. He asks of his audience, “We no longer burn our old and poor. But do they not often suffer bitterly? And the little woman, whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, isn’t she still a riddle for us? Nowadays we detain the unhappy in a mental institution or – if she is wealthy – in a modern clinic.” He suggests that we haven’t moved as far as we think from the mindset that caused the witch-hunts and need some further self-examination to move forward, especially for the sake of women and those less fortunate who are still the victims of authority and misunderstanding. As Haberman notes, a theme of male apprehension regarding female independence crops up many times throughout the film, and each time it is a male authority figure, often through violent means, who suppresses:

“The final impression of Haxan is that women throughout history have been subjected to the control of men, sometimes mercifully, more often cruelly. Females are tempted and degraded by Satan, unfairly judged and punished by the Church, and diagnosed and shut away in clinics by modern doctors. The implication is that men fear the opposite sex and seek to control them. The final image in the film is a silhouette of the charred bodies of several accused witches bound to stakes after being burned alive: the ultimate method of male restraint and domination” (pg. 91).

Haxan 1922 Devil

The performances are strong throughout the film, with special attention to be paid to Maren Pedersen, whose elderly Maria the Weaver is tortured by the Inquisition as the camera keeps upon her lined face, allowing our imaginations to fill in the rest of what’s happening to her. She was not a professional actress but a woman Christensen found who was selling flowers on the street. According to the director, Pederson told him that the Devil was real and that she saw him sitting by her bed at night. She is truly pitiable and her visage on film is striking, both when she’s hungrily slobbering on stew and when tears are running down her cheeks. These close-up shots of faces in agony, in particular, riled many censors and caused the film to be banned or recut in many countries.

Yet while there are aspects of horror and serious social commentary, Christensen still employs his own morbid sense of humor to liven the film. Many scenes are playful and tongue-in-cheek, especially when dealing with medieval beliefs, such as the witches lining up to kiss Satan’s ass. The scenes are lively and nightmarish and could easily be put to a modern heavy metal soundtrack. And where else can you see Satan pop out and gleefully club a nun on the head? The transitions are almost dreamlike, leaving the viewer to question whether they are witnessing hallucinations or reality. Nevertheless, when dealing with historical or contemporary reality Christensen stays his hand and presents it matter-of-factly so as to not diminish its effect. All the while he maintains a reassuring, almost conversational tone with the viewer, reminding them that despite the seeming chaos on screen, there is method to all the madness.

Haxan 1922 still

Chris Fujiwara, in an essay written for The Criterion Collection, bestows high praise on Christensen’s artistry:

“Under any title and with any modifications, Häxan endures because of Christensen’s tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word “painterly” comes to mind in watching Christensen’s ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have.”

Many silent films, even in horror, can have a sense of innocence to them. But there is no innocence here. Christensen offers an intelligent yet entertaining adult fantasy filled with adult humor, yet it is all coupled with important contemplations and explanations. In every scene can be felt the deliberate touch of an eccentric, macabre genius. The film was well-received in Denmark and Sweden but was banned in countries like the United States for what was considered graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. In France, Catholic organizations mobilized against the film because of its negative depictions of the Church.

While largely a critical success, the film’s experimental nature meant limited distribution and audience attendance, making the film a financial failure and putting a pause on Christensen’s career for two years. He had originally intended Häxan to be the first installment of a trilogy, with the other movies being The Saint and The Spirits, which would have further explored themes of suspicion towards Christian institutions and an objective approach to spiritual matters. For The Saint Christensen had planned to explore religious hysteria, and for The Spirits he wanted to assemble the world’s foremost mediums and hold a séance, hoping to capture an actual spiritual manifestation on film. Though a few scenes were shot for The Saint, neither film was finished.

Haxan 1922 still3

In the late 1960s the film received new life from British exploitation filmmaker Anthony Balch who shortened the film and added a jazz soundtrack as well as a narrative by “beat” writer William S. Burroughs. The film became a unique “midnight movie” rediscovered by a generation who appreciated its dark humor and deliberate touches of insanity. It’s time today’s horror fans rediscovered it as well.

Christensen’s 1916 Blind Justice is my favorite pre-Caligari horror/thriller, and Häxan is unquestionably floating, like a witch rubbed with flying ointment, somewhere at the top of my list of favorite silent horror films, and manages to even bespell the eras beyond.

Grade: A+

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