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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Häxan (Blu-ray)
Häxan (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // October 15, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted September 25, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Movie:

Directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen in 1922, Häxan was, in its day, the most expensive film ever made in a Scandinavian country. That's interesting in and of itself but once you see the film, which was financed by Swedish investors but shot at the director's own studio in his native Denmark, and realize how flat out bizarre it is, it makes that fact every more unique.

The film itself is a look at the history of witchcraft told in seven parts. The first part is the driest of the seven but it's important as it lays the groundwork for what's to come. Here we see various archival illustrations and texts that back up Christensen's theory that witches, devils and demons have always been around and always been involving themselves with humans. As his narration sets the stage, we get a look at some of this archival material, much of which is very macabre, while a knife points out details. From there, we move into the live action segments, six in total, all of which are much more satisfying. In these segments we see firsthand through recreations of various stories how witches go about their dark ways, cavorting and laying with demons, kissing the devil himself on his behind, making stews out of infants, creating love potions and, yes, flying about at night on broomsticks. We also see witch-hunters at work and a get a feel for the instruments of torture that they use in order to coerce confessions out of accused women, usually on the basis on their looks rather than any devilish behavior on the part of the accused. As the film, which is an hour-and-forty-five-minutes long, draws to its close we learn how the modern world of 1922 has evolved to the point where, rather than accuse certain segments of the population of practicing witchcraft, we're now able to understand that they suffer from hysteria and are able to be better treated by psychiatrists than by witchfinders.

As far as explaining the history of witchcraft, Häxan does a decent enough job but it really only scratches the surface. That said, it should have no trouble holding the attention of a modern-day audience not just because it deals with a very interesting subject (and treats it very seriously) but also because of its powerful visual style. The recreations featured in this picture are as impressive as they are complex, and feel very much ahead of their time in terms of both their scope and their execution. Elaborate sets and costumes were constructed for the film to conjure up some genuinely chilling atmosphere and the cinematography and special effects showcased in the film still hold up remarkably well. Strong stuff for its time and still able to unnerve even now, almost a century since it was made, Häxan features some visually wild depictions of tongue flicking devils mauling nubile witches against macabre backdrops and other visually bizarre, but no less impressive, depictions of evil but so too does it take aim at the equally sinister witch hunts that rose out of the church's rise to power. At one point in the film a woman gives birth to multiple demons that come crawling out from under her covered mid-section. It's also worth noting that Christensen himself plays the devil in the film.

The performances that Christensen gets out of his cast are also impressive. In particular, the old woman who plays Maria the weaver, Maren Pedersen, is insanely sympathetic as her character is accused and then subsequently tortured for something she didn't do. Subjected to a horrible fate based almost entirely on her appearance, it's hard not to feel for the woman as she's put through the ringer by the church. All of the principal case members do fine work here, using body language and facial expressions to deftly convey what spoken dialogue cannot.

Interestingly enough, a short review in the August 30th, 1923 issue of Variety noted that "wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition, and it is very unlikely any firm will take it up for such a purpose, at any rate, in England."

The Video:

Häxan debuts on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 1.33.1 and taken from a new 2016 2k restoration of the film and it looks excellent. There is still some noticeable damage here and there and you'll notice splice marks where the original editing was done in spots, but detail is surprisingly impressive here, particularly once the film does away with the stills and gets into the live action footage. The tinting on the film, blue for scenes that take place outside and sepia tone for indoor sequences, looks quite good and never seems to sap out any of the detail. There's very strong depth and texture here and the image is free of any noticeable noise reduction or edge enhancement issues. The film also has a strong bit rate, so there are no noticeable issues with any problematic compression quirks. All in all, it looks beautiful.

The Audio:

The film is silent, obviously, but the 24-bit DTS-HD 5.0 Master Audio track used to bring the score to life is of very strong quality. Created by the Czech Film Orchestra and conducted by Gillian Anderson, the orchestral score used in this presentation is based on notes on the music used at the film's 1922 Danish premiere and attempts to recreate that music as authentically as possible. The end results sounds absolutely wonderful, you can really make out all of the different instruments used in the score and the clarity and balance are pretty much perfect. The interititles used throughout the film are in Swedish, but Criterion has supplied English subtitles translating that material.

The Extras:

Extras are carried over from the 2001 DVD release, starting with the audio commentary featuring Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg. He speaks in quite a bit of detail here about Benjamin Christensen's life and work, discussing the film's unique visual style, some of the reference material that was used, some of the more memorable set pieces and just the overall history of the film. It's a very well-researched talk that covers a lot of ground and if you haven't heard it before, it's definitely worth a listen.

Also included on the disc is the 1968 Witchcraft Through the Ages version of the movie. This is considerably shorter at a seventy-six-minutes in length, omitting quite a bit of the opening and closing segments. It's presented in 1080p black and white with no color tinting and with Dolby Digital Mono English language audio. This is more than just a shortened version of Häxan. Aside from removing some of the slower material, this version is narrated by author William S. Burroughs and features a completely different soundtrack composed by Daniel Humair and featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

Also carried over from the DVD is Director Benjamin Christensen's Introduction to the 1941 rerelease. It's an eight-minute black and white clip wherein he speaks about the film's origins. Additionally, we get just under five-minutes of outtakes from the film and a fascinating piece called Bibliothèque diabolique, which is a fifteen-minute photographic document of the historical sources that Christensen used in the research that he did for the film.

The disc also comes packaged with an insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and the Blu-ray release, some technical notes on the presentation, an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, remarks on the score by Anderson, and an essay by scholar Chloé Germaine Buckley.

Overall:

Häxan remains a fascinating document of the silent film era. Part horror film, part documentary, it's unlike anything else made before or since. While it would have been nice to get some new supplements included on the Blu-ray, Criterion, to their credit, has carried over everything from the previous DVD edition and give the feature itself a beautiful presentation. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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