Amused to discover, at an Edinburgh Filmhouse screening of Benjamin Christensen’s nutty HAXAN (WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES) that in Swedish, the Brocken, the place where witches gather for their midnight sabbats, is known as “Blakulla.”
Other aspects of the film are amusing too, deliberately so — Christensen’s sardonic wit emerges in the strangest places, but most often to pour scorn on the absurdities of the holy witch-hunters’ beliefs and actions (it’s a seriously anti-clerical film!). Interesting to hear the audience’s laughter dry up as the realistic horror of the witch trials emerges to swamp the surreal-mythological-grotesque elements of the cavorting demons and sorcerers.
There’s so much in this film! It was strange to have seen the Chaney HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME the previous night (more on this later) and thus to have encountered to silent films in two nights featuring darting tongues, church stabbings, and molten lead.
Fiona and I were both very impressed with the demonic makeup, even when it’s deliberately absurd. One reason was perhaps having just seen HUNCHBACK, where Chaney’s body make-up is so peculiar and over-the-top — Quasimodo has an actual MANE of body hair around his neck, presumably to conceal the join between the actor’s putty-covered face and his nude-effect upper body costume — a wave of discomfort seemed to sweep across the Usher Hall as the feeling that what we were looking at was no longer in any way good enough settled over us like a pall. “Well, I guess almost nobody had ever done body makeup before,” I assured myself. But one year earlier, here’s Christensen doing it with scores of supernatural characters, all of whom look completely convincing within the heightened reality of the movie.
No information seems to be available about who designed or executed the remarkable makeup and costuming for the creatures, or who animated the brief stop-motion sequences, including a scary bit when a tiny demon is glimpsed through a disintegrating door. He’s coming for you! Who were the Swedish animators at this time?
It’s interesting and suggestive that Christensen’s SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (still disgracefully unavailable in any decent form) also features some disturbing/goody makeups. He’s like the Lucio Fulci of Sweden — able to conjure disturbing deformities at will.
Oh, the striking musical score at our screening was performed by Verity Susman. Perhaps I could have done without the recognizable snatches of English-language speech used as samples. Spoken words, or decipherable ones, seem to add a critical/intellectual commentary onto the film. This is sort of OK for music to do, but only sort of. In a sense, the score was engaging in a dialogue with the film… interesting. If I can formulate any objection it’s merely that Christensen’s film is already so rich and open to interpretation that to include a kind of critique in the soundtrack presupposes that one has fully processed everything he’s on about. There was a slight sense in Susman’s program notes that she intended to add a layer of modern sophistication. I actually think the film is more sophisticated than anything that’s been said about it.
But the soundtrack was beautiful and disturbing in its own right and it didn’t stop me engaging with the movie, so no harm was done.
I feel I ought to start promoting the annual Shadowplay blogathon — The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon. So here is a short, tantalizing mention.