Witten and directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Based on the novel El Juego de los Niños by Juan José Plans
Starring Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tourists seeking an “authentic experience” go to a remote location where they discover that the natives are murderous. Or maybe this one: quite suddenly humanity faces danger from a previously harmless source. How about a woman is faced with the contamination of the child still in her womb.
At its best, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? is a genre-masher that draws together elements of eco-horror, colonialist terror of uncivilized areas, and generational fears into a fairly unique mixture. At its worst, it is a dull affair that largely consists of two people wandering around a small village while children grin. There’s a lot of footage dedicated to watching people walk around, not finding anybody.
The premise is summarized by the lone surviving adult that our tourists (Tom and Evelyn, from England) find on the Spanish island of Almanzora. He reveals that two nights ago, at midnight, the children went into all of the houses and killed the adults. Nobody could stop them because “¿Quién puede matar a un niño?” (“Who can kill a child?”). It’s a concept that seems pleasantly naïve today. As the news shows us, plenty of people can kill children, and they do. The movie even tells the audience up front that children often suffer and are killed, as a narrator chronicles massive child casualties in conflicts of the mid 20th century. Germany, India and Pakistan, Korea, Vietnam, and Nigeria are discussed in order to hammer home the point: children are killed.
Here’s where we enter the realm of eco-horror. Just as the birds and the bees in other films, the children have had enough and spontaneously arisen in revolt against humanity — adult humanity anyway. Just as similarly, there is no cause provided for the sudden shift to aggression. It just happens. There is some evidence that the behavior is transmitted from child to child by proximity. In a chilling scene, the English couple find an isolate house on the far side of Almanzora. There are four children playing outside, but their mother and grandmother are fine and unafraid. Tom negotiates for a ride to the mainland once the men return from fishing, but he and Evelyn keep a nervous eye on the children. When two boys arrive from the village, the normal children run over to greet them. Much intense squinting follows, after which all of the children take on a predatory air.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about the film is that the children are not relentless until they’ve decided to kill again. They giggle and run and play. Of course the clothing the girls dress up in has blood stains, and the boys are excitedly removing the clothing from a dead woman, and they use a body as a piñata. Just like normal children. Evelyn and Tom have several interactions with the children of Almanzora that don’t involve stabbing or chasing. After all, to the children it’s a game, and what’s more fun than letting the prey believe it’s running loose? As long as they don’t get close to the exit.
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Antonio Román, and Rafael J. Salvia
Based on the story “One Night of 21 Hours” by Renato Pestriniero
English version written by Louis M. Heyward and Ib Melchior
Starring Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, and Ángel Aranda
A crew of space travelers investigating a signal of unknown origin land on a murky planet, where they fall prey to an unknown stalker. Oh, and there’s an ancient alien craft populated by giant skeletons. Sound familiar?
It’s impossible to watch Planet of the Vampires without thinking that it greatly influenced Alien. Not just the high-level plot similarities, or the probable coincidences such as U-shaped spacecraft, but what really strikes you is the creative emphasis on creating a style-driven science-horror experience. It’s just that those styles couldn’t be more different.
Where Ridley Scott choose claustrophobic darkness, Mario Bava elected for bright openness. The bridge sets of the investigating travelers are ludicrously cavernous. The only trace of the creatures preying on the crew are fleeting glimpses of glowing light in a landscape of mists and garish hues. The result is an eerie fantasy world that looks amazing, but unfortunately it’s too ethereal to believe in.
The place where it works best is in the least necessary part of the movie. The interiors of the derelict craft are cramped, especially for the giants that used it. Strange equipment lies everywhere, and attempts to use it activate electric shocks, unintelligible recordings, and the bulkhead door — leading to a panicked effort to reopen it and escape. It’s a terrifically moody scene, and although it lends to the atmosphere and verifies that this planet is a trap, it’s a mostly superfluous diversion from the main story.
It’s a neat movie, and I adore it, but I’m afraid it’s not very good. The dubbing is never great and is often downright silly. While there’s a lot of visual interest (the costumes and some of the set designs are nifty), there are many times in which it’s painfully apparent that you’re looking at cardboard with a lick of paint. If you like style over substance — and when it comes to Italian cinema, I most definitely do! — then it can be a rewarding view.
One more note: if you’re expecting vampires, you will be frustrated and potentially aggrieved. The vampires exist solely in the minds of whatever marketing team came up with the American title. The original name was the less inaccurate Terrore nello spazio, or Terror in Space. There are some corpses that walk around. They aren’t exactly zombies, but they certainly aren’t vampires. Thank the marketing team at AIP for the misleading title. So now you know.
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, and Urbano Barberini
I’m a Dario Argento apologist up to a point, and that point is his 1998 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera that starred his daughter Asia and Julian Sands. That’s the point in his career where I throw up my hands and say that Susperia is terrific. Fortunately Opera falls in the defensible years by a safe distance; and if it seems ludicrous to hinge a plot on a vengeful raven identifying the killer, just remember that a chimpanzee avenging Donald Pleasence is not the most insane part of Argento’s previous film Phenomena.
Opera is heavily influenced by Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, without quite being an adaptation. There’s a young understudy (Betty, played by Cristina Marsillach) who gets the starring role when the prima donna is injured. There’s a mysterious killer, fixated on the ingénue. A performance is interrupted for the penultimate confrontation. The rest is a wild departure, as it is more of a slasher movie than a Gothic romance.
It’s a pretty good slasher, too. The killer strikes those near Betty, binding her so that she is forced to watch. There’s a reason for this fixation, and it’s honestly a tad contrived, but what I love about the film is the way that sight and voyeurism are emphasized by the camera. From the opening shot of a closeup of a raven’s eye, the lens is fixated on p.o.v. shots, eyes, and focusing the view through narrow spaces.
The ravens and Betty have seen things that we haven’t, and fittingly it’s what Betty doesn’t recall having seen that explains her importance to the killer. Further, it’s what she can’t see when her stalker finally blindfolds her that nearly kills Betty.
For all of the above I adore Opera. Even the choice of an opera based on Macbeth fits thematically, as not only is the play believed to be cursed but Lady Macbeth’s most famous scene is wrapped up in guilt for bloody deeds. This is a bit of a nod to the film’s back-story.
Here I’m just going to say it, so if you really don’t want to know the reveal for a movie nearly 30 years old, skip to the next paragraph. Betty’s mother made the killer torture and kill young women. Betty herself had seen it happen as a child but had repressed it, because repressed memories are a terrific substitute for good writing. So, the mother’s actions ate transferred to the daughter to expiate the killer’s guilt. Thus, Betty plays Lady Macbeth.
Anyway, it’s definitely a flawed movie. The pins under Betty’s eyelids are a good visual but infeasible as presented. The bit with the ravens is well-filmed but downright silly. I don’t even want to know who thought dubbing a creepy adult for a young girl was a good plan. The play’s director being a clear stand-in for Argento and making moves on his much younger star is downright gross.
Yet this is the Argento I prefer to remember. The one who put effort into artistic touches that rise above the material; not the one we have now, cashing in on what’s left of his reputation with artless cheapies where the main attraction is his own naked daughter.
Directed by Jörg Buttgereit
Written by Jörg Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen
Starring Bernd Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice Manowski, and Harald Mundt
I don’t know why I bought Nekromantic. I don’t have any desire to watch simulated necrophilia, and I’d never heard anyway say they enjoyed the film. Actually, all I’d ever heard was rear it was an infamous entry on the British “video nasties” list. There’s a lot of reasons that something would be put in that company, and this was reputed to have essentially used those as a checklist. Maybe it was morbid curiosity then that made me shell out an unreasonable amount for the blu of this.
Since Nekromantic deals with necrophilia, murder, and rape, I’m going to give the weak of stomach an opportunity to bail out now. Also, if a pet kill is an automatic deal-breaker for you, you really don’t need to read any more. Additionally, if seeing a real rabbit killed, bled, and skinned repels you, move on. I think that covers the worst of it. Unless caterpillars freak you out, I guess. Oh, and shots of urination. And ejaculate from a fake penis.
My biggest problem with this movie is that what I listed above is all there is to it. It’s just an exercise in transgression. That’s fine, and if you’re into watching people bathe in corpse drippings then it’ll provide that. But in between shocks, there’s a nothingness that’s occupied by overlong establishing sequences and seemingly endless repetition of the rabbit footage. Anything to stretch the run time to a paltry 75 minutes.
Here’s the story, and I’m telling every important part of it. Rob and Betty love dead things. Rob brings dead bits home from his job at Joe’s Streetcleaners. One day he brings home a decayed body, which becomes Betty’s favorite sex toy. When Rob is fired, Betty leaves with the corpse. Rob can’t get it up with a prostitute until he rage kills her. Rob stabs himself to death in a sexual frenzy. Betty starts to dig up his body.
The dead space is filled with nothing meaningful. There are two tedious scenes about how people became bodies for Rob to clean up. There are numerous scenes of Rob dreaming of cavorting in a field. Rob goes to a horror movie, where he sees people getting aroused by the sexual violence. Some of this film spackle could have been interesting if it had been better written. The audience reactions fit in with a show that Rob had watched about desensitization, but so what? If that had anything to do with Rob’s state, that happened a long time before the start of the movie.
The dullness of these stretches leaves the viewer plenty of time to think about what be better. Like making an actual connection between the rabbit and, well, anything. Showing an actual progression in Rob’s behavior. In extremely quick order he goes from killing one animal to killing a person; but he since he seems capable of all of that from the beginning, where’s the change?
It seems a bit misplaced to expect narrative quality out of a movie that features a love scene of a corpse performing fungilingus on the female lead, but I really don’t ask for Oscar quality work here. Go ahead and nauseate me, push me why the hell out of my comfort zone, but don’t leave me bored while waiting for the next shock.
Written and directed by Stuart Simpson
Starring Nelli Scarlet, Kyrie Capri, and Norman Yemm
Following a bloody heist, three bad girls hide from the law in a tiny fishing village. There they clash with a wheelchair-bound old man, who is raising his teenage granddaughter with no visible means of support. It sounds like the premise of a Russ Meyer homage, and apart from the titular monster that’s pretty much what the film delivers.
The majority of the film deals with the interactions between the women in hiding, led by Beretta (Nelli Scarlet), and the sheltered Hannah (Kyrie Capri). It’s an awkward relationship from the start. The criminals view Hannah as a naive yokel to toy with, while she sees them as intriguing but reckless. After one drunken night together, Hannah has had enough to know that their life is not for her, yet neither was her own. For Hannah then the story is about growing into her own person. For Beretta it becomes about revenge.
This is a monster movie, so while all the human drama transpires along the shore a sort of giant squid emerges from the deeps. The fishermen of the small community are wiped out over the course of a night and a day, and one of Beretta’s gang falls victim as well. Before you can say “tell us what’s in the water” it’s women versus cephalopod. The monster has snapping jaws on its tentacles. The women have whatever they can find in a fishing shack.
I had a lot of fun with one. I’ve seen El Monstro del Mar! three times now, and I like it a little more with each viewing. Of course, I am pretty much its target audience; being a fan of monster flicks, practical effects, and cheesy sleaze. There’s a lot of leering camera angles, homoeroticism, and other PG titillation you’d get in the average Katy Perry video. The lighting and makeup are less flattering, however, giving a raw low-budget feel that makes everything look dirty and used.
The creature effects range from pretty admirable to endearingly silly. The exterior shots of the monster mounted atop the fishing shack is hilarious, in a good (and hopefully intentional) way. The majority of what is shown of the monster are its tentacles. It’s a wise choice, and the small array of credited puppeteers shows the filmmakers were committed to making it work for them. Indeed, the seemingly endless tentacles make the finale a thrilling, non-stop struggle. It’s a hell of a finish, and the fight itself wraps up all of the plot threads.
When a monster movie remembers to tell a solid story in between killings, it makes it a lot more enjoyable to wait around for the full reveal of the monster. It doesn’t take a lot to give characters purpose and conflict, but so often all we’re given is the same handful of kids looking to party, whose only conflict is (to quote the porn version of Hamlet) “to fuck or not to fuck”. Centering the story on a young woman befriending a trio of killers gives El Monstro… a light cake for its monster frosting to cover. But more appetizing than that sounds. Squid frosting… just, no.
Written by Everett De Roche
Starring John Hargreaves, Briony Behets, and Mike McEwan
I seem to watch a fair number of movies about terrible people. Of course, the advantage to having awful characters is that the audience won’t feel too sorry for them when they die. They might even cheer. Unfortunately, when the movie essentially only has two people in it and they’re both horrid, there’s not much to occupy the viewer except for the thin hope that they’ll have the decency to die quickly. Preferably in a dramatic and entertaining manner.
Such is the case with today’s movie, the Australian environmental horror Long Weekend. Nature had always been a source of peril in movies. Fierce animals and quicksand awaited the adventurous who ventured into lost lands and uncharted territories. These were usually threats that could be managed by the alert and square of jaw, and they amounted to little more than added excitement. Godzilla ushered in the age of humans summoning nature’s wrath; and, even after the giant monster became a niche market, the theme of ecological terror resonated strongly. Birds, frogs, and even ants attacked people.
So it’s almost retro that De Roche wrote about a couple from the city going out to the wilderness and summoning the unified wrath of all the animals. Sure, there were colonial-fear horror flicks about white people stirring up monsters in parts foreign and undeveloped. This isn’t like that, though. Long Weekend is just ordinary nature having had enough. It’s an outlier, and that alone makes it worth seeing.That’s something to consider while watching this one. I mentioned that the leads are unbearable. At least since the Taylor and Burton movie adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, quarreling couples have been the stuff of drama. What everyone seems to forget is that the power of that story comes from the young couple being used as a new battleground for the same old war. Here, along a forgotten stretch of beach, there’s just Peter and Marcia. There’s no one to care about. Okay, there’s Peter’s dog.
I want to like Marcia. Her hatred for Peter seems rooted in valid causes, and she hadn’t actually wanted to go camping. But while she’s not as generally loathsome as Peter — who shoots randomly, throws bottles around, and generally comes off as an internet troll on vacation — Marcia can’t resist turning the screws whenever an opportunity presents. It’s a codependent relationship that’s surprisingly realistic. Congratulations, filmmakers. You’ve captured something that’s no fun to watch.
Neither Peter nor Marcia respects the outdoors or its denizens, and that seals their fate. Individually, nothing is too serious or inexplicable. A possum bites Peter. An eagle attacks, perhaps looking for its egg. They get lost driving along wilderness trails. Branches fall in the night. It all adds up, combining with their own tension to make the pair absolutely and dangerously paranoid. Perhaps most inexplicable is the dead sea cow. Symbol of their crimes against the wilderness, it moves ever closer to their camp.On the whole, it’s a neat film. The scenery is beautifully shot. The effects of mental deterioration are well realized, and as I hinted most of the animal attacks are separately inconsequential. For most of the running time, there’s a real ambiguity about whether nature is rising. A hint in the beginning seems to indicate that incidents of animal aggression are on the rise, and by the end it’s hard to deny that something is up. I have problems with the narrow focus on two unlikable characters, but that’s not enough for me to give up on it entirely. I confess that the inclusion of a tarantula in a pivotal scare role might have endeared it to me just a lot. To be honest, abandoning my vehicle seems to me like a sensible reaction to the sudden appearance of a large spider on the windshield.
Directed by Mario Bava and Lamberto Bava
Written by Allesandro Parenzo and Cesare Frugoni
Based on the story Man and Boy by Michael J. Carroll
Starring Lea Lander, Riccardo Cucciolla, Maurice Poli, and George Eastman
Wes Craven made his writing and directorial debut in 1972 with The Last House on the Left. The film has its flaws, but its commitment to showing the denigration and torture of the teenage victims makes for unparalleled cringing horror. Not to be outdone, two years later legendary Italian director Mario Bava turned out the suspenseful crime movie Kidnapped. (Originally Rabid Dogs, it was renamed when it was restored.)
This is a tense and uncomfortable film. The only peace occurs during the opening credits, which are plain text over a black background. Almost immediately, the audience is thrown into a bloody heist. From there, it’s pretty much a feature-length car chase. You’re wondering how that’s horrific. Imagine a car with six passengers: three desperate criminals, a woman held hostage, an unconscious young boy wrapped in a blanket, and the owner of the hijacked vehicle. Now have one of the thieves (“Stiletto”) be quick to flash a knife and another (“32”, played enthusiastically by George Eastman) obsessed with having post-caper coitus. The driver, meanwhile, keeps begging them to let him go so that he can take the boy to the hospital. The mastermind (“Doc”) has only fragile control of his thugs, and he’s frankly a sociopath himself.
So it’s not a pleasant trip. If, like me, you grew up dreading family outings, this creates exactly that horrible, stomach-churning anxiety. Only more so. It induces nausea, and I swear that every time Maria is accosted, I just want to turn it off and walk away. It’s not quite as awful as watching parts of I Spit On Your Grave, but it’s not easy to witness. In addition to the ever-present threat of sexual assault, there’s the tension of the child who needs emergency surgery and the constant presence of weapons.
As if all that’s not enough, there are incidents along the way that raise hope in order to tighten the screws. Riccardo, the driver, runs into a friend while under the watchful eye of 32 at a rest stop. A gas station attendant notices something peculiar about this anxious group of travelers. A police car pulls up to a tollbooth moments after their quarry passes through going the other way. It’s all maddening, and it keeps you on edge. It’s so engrossing that even clunky English dialog and dubbing doesn’t break its grip on your spine.
I enjoy the experience of watching Kidnapped, of draining my own anxiety by expending it on the behalf of the imaginary characters in an impossible situation. I also feel like I need a really long bath, a therapy session, and the PayPal address of a good cause. It’s not I movie I recommend lightly; but if you can stomach assault, high tension, and bleak depravity this is a film that applies them with the assured hand of an experienced director. And his son.
Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Written by Nobuo Nakagawa and Ichirô Miyagawa
Starring Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya, and Yôichi Numata
When you think of Japanese horror films today, you likely think of disturbing ghost girls or gruesome body reshaping. As in Western cinema, this was not always the case. The shift to horrific imagery had to begin somewhere. I haven’t seen any Japanese horror made before 1960’s Jigoku, but it is generally held to be the starting point of the country’s modern approach to the genre. I just had to take a look for myself.
The English title of the film is Hell, but it’s also been known as The Gates of Hell and The Sinners of Hell. For an older foreign film, these English titles are all surprisingly good descriptions of the content. That is, they describe the end of the film, where all of the groundbreaking scenes are. The beginning is the sort of overly wrought, super-choreographed, spiral of death that can only be called a morality play.
Students Shirō Shimizu and Tamura run over a man one night, killing him. This sets events in motion which draw in everyone attached to Shimizu and the dead man, a yakuza named Shiga. Shiga’s mother witnessed the accident and wants revenge. Tamura, who may be some sort of demon, dismisses the incident, but the philosophic Shimizu confesses everything to his fiancé. Yajima is the daughter of Shimizu’s religion professor, and she talks him into going to the police. The young pair catch a cab, and when it inevitably crashes, Yajima dies. In his drunken grief, Shimizu hooks up with Yoko, Shiga’s girlfriend.
This is only a fraction of the people who get snared in the web of death, and it’s already incredibly complicated. Before the waves of the bloodbath settle the victims include Yajima’s parents, Yoko, Shiga’s mother, Tamura, Shimizu, Shimizu’s father, and a large section of the community where all the killing finally goes down. It’s meant to be tragic, but the scale and contrivance of it all is sadly hilarious. The movie Penn & Teller Get Killed ends with contagious suicide, where everyone who comes upon the mounting disaster kills themselves. It’s tasteless, and horrible, and not very funny. Here the inverse occurs; the very solemnity of the presentation makes it unintentional comedy.
Once everyone is dead, the movie follows Shimizu as he travels through Hell. He encounters everyone from earlier as they suffer the inexplicable torments of the damned. In the Western world, our concepts of Hell are varied but largely center on red fellows with pitchforks. There is some Greco-Roman stuff mixed in, of course — Charon, the river Styx — but that’s for pop culture, not theology. Japan has a different foundation for the afterlife, built on Shinto and Buddhism. Their cultural understanding of Christian Hell differs from the West, and the trials of the damned reflect that.
No pitchforks here, but there is a place where sinners are hung upside down and cut with swords. Groups of people shuffle in overlapping circles, hands bound, wearing a trench in the bare earth with their endless march. And a father waits eternally for time to advance enough to rescue his son from the clock of fate. It’s an amazing spectacle, although that’s practically all it amounts to. As a denouement, it’s rather protracted and introduces narrative elements far too late for emotional impact. It’s just an excuse to film Hell, which I’m okay with. As I said, it’s the best part of the film.
To be a trendsetter, you have to break some rules. Jigoku broke a lot of them to varying success, but it can’t be called a failure. It changed Japanese cinema, and set the path toward the visceral haunted horror that Western movies have been ripping off since Ringu. That’s quite a legacy for an overblown fable.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrest, and Olivia Luccardi
A title like It Follows begs questions. Primarily, “what follows?”, “why does it follow?”, and “how can it be stopped?” Since the unknown is one major source of horror, movies often hold a little back, leaving some mysteries while resolving enough to grant the audience a sense of resolution. In this case there are arguably no answers given at all, which is a bit of a risky approach. If for only that reason I’d be kindly disposed toward it, but fortunately the film has a lot to offer.
Here’s what the audience does get (and it’s not much more than what’s in the trailers): it follows, it kills, and it may be passed to another victim through sex. Whatever it may actually be, it’s a sexually transmitted killer. Presumably, one could follow its victims back to Patient Zero and find out what caused all of this, but who has time for that while they’re being followed?
This movie centers on the horror cliché that sexuality leads to death. What makes it work is that, rather than use this as an excuse to see naked “teenagers” get slaughtered, the story explores the difference between sex and a relationship. For one thing, there is nothing quite so casual about the sex that transmits this curse. It establishes a link that can only be severed by death. Although the “giver” achieves temporary relief from constant fear and watchfulness, the wellbeing of the “receiver” is never going to be far from mind. Unlike spreaders of real venereal diseases, those who pass on the Follower are highly motivated to reveal the transmission and explain how to live with the consequences. Otherwise, the Follower will return all the quicker.
It’s a terrific set up, and the film uses it to create some genuinely tense scenes and frightening thoughts. I hold on to that, because there are distracting imperfections. The Follower is always in motion, constantly pursuing — except when it stands on a rooftop for no better reason than a cool shot. It shifts form, but to what purpose? Sometimes it seems to want to blend into a crowd, other times it’s visually alarming, and once in a great while it’s somebody the target knows. That’s kind of neat, and it’s fine if the reasoning behind each visage is unexplained to the characters or the audience, but there should be a reason; but I’m inclined to assume that Mitchell doesn’t know, given all the other things that don’t add up.
From the general wardrobe, hair, and accessories the movie appears to be set in 19-whatever. Early 80s, maybe. Maybe. Presumably, this is so that the script doesn’t have to handle pesky things like the internet and police databases filled with reports about mutilated sex pretzels. Setting horror in the past is a time-honored tradition, and filmmakers have rarely shown much interest in attempting to portray the periods with any sort of realism (Ti West being a notable and welcome exception). A few slip-ups would pretty much go unnoticed, but you can’t insert a pocket e-reader into the last century without treating suspended disbelief like a piñata. There’s no reason for it, either. There’s nothing done with it that couldn’t be served by a beat-up paperback.
I had more — expounding on the awfulness of the romantic subplot and the unequally examined parallels of invoking Oedipus and Electra during attacks — but I’ve said less against honestly worse films. The reason I get more worked up about the problems in this film is because it is good. It’s very good, and I wish it were better. Give it a watch, and see for yourself. I’ll be over here picking nits.
Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen
Starring Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, and Maren Pedersen
In 1922 Sweden got the first glimpse of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, a film that only pretends to be educational as an excuse to show reenactments of witchcraft and torture. It’s an approach that would later allow movies to show scenes of debauchery and depravity despite censors. Movies tackled issues such as drug use, sexual diseases, and artificial insemination in order to educate audiences just enough to get away with titillating them as well. My favorite example (1934’s Maniac) includes grave robbing, necrophilia, murder, resurrection of the dead, and countless other unsavory acts while occasionally dropping in a sanctimonious text crawl about mental illness.
While Häxan isn’t quite on that level of deception, it does delight in showing recreations of jug-band unholy sabbaths, naked women in silhouette, and the moment before torture commences. Being a nominally enlightening movie, there is no real story. There are some longer vignettes, some of which are build into longer stories. The most frequently visited narrative starts with an elderly woman being blamed for a man’s illness. She is seized by the German Inquisition and tortured until she confesses to things that never occurred (but which are lovingly recreated for film). As a result more women are captured, including the wife of the man whose disease started the hunt. The inquisitors focus on her when one of their number feels attracted to her. She is then deceived into condemning herself in an effort to save her child. This is all told in fragments, as each visitation to the scenario serves to illustrate a particular aspect of supposed witches or their pursuers.The film is also broken up, structured into seven parts that are meant to build from the first section’s overview of paganism (a few distortions of Persian and Egyptian mythology) and Early Christian cosmology into a close-to-the-mark-without-getting-it equating of witch “symptoms” with hysteria in the conclusion. Christensen seems to sense that the psychological diagnosis was yet another misogynist construct; but he backs away from outright denunciation, noting that at least a nice hot shower in a sanitarium is preferable to being burned at the stake.
The overall tone is sympathetic to the accused witches, but this empathy is readily undermined whenever the opportunity arises to show what Christensen tells us never happened. This effort to have the eaten cake leaves me questioning his scholarly motivations. It is a frustrating film, because so much could have been done with it either as an actual story, as social commentary, or as documentary (a form deceitfully exampled by Nanook of the North, also released in 1922). Yet it is fascinating for being an early template for today’s parade of UFO and Bigfoot shows on supposedly educational channels. Did I enjoy the film, or did I loathe it? You decide!