Starring: Elizabeth Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther
Director: Benjamin Christensen
A film in 7 chapter or parts, this is an early documentary film, though it’s not a true documentary as we now know them. It’s about witchcraft through the ages, the first chapter being a slideshow style history lesson about how the world was understood to work in the Middle Ages, and then moving through sections on how people thought witcraft and witches operated, how they were discovered and made to confess, and goes on to show a witch trial. Finally, it compares women suffering from hysteria and mental illnesses in the 20’s to women accused of witchcraft in the past. Perhaps those witches were merely suffering from mental illnesses?
It sounds a but dry when described like this, but it’s anything but. The largest part of the film are quite lavish reenactments of witchery, complete with some really impressive imagery of dark practices like meeting with the devil in the midnight forest, using decomposing body parts to create dark magic, and also the torture practices used to get confessions from accused witches. It’s hard to describe how eerie and strange the whole film is, and how much of an impact it has had on the creation of later horror films. It was also popular in the 60’s for it’s surrealism, and you can find a William S Burroughs narrated version.
Personally, I found the whole thing quite riveting! It’s not often that a silent film really gets under your skin, but this one does! The demons and the imagery of torture is incredibly well realised, and puts a lot of more recent horror films to shame. It was one of the most expensive films of it’s era to produce, and was largely criticised for it’s horrific and explicit content. It’s a film with a lot of really scary images, demons and witches leap off the screen in many guises. For those of us used to gore and body counts in films, you will find this more scary and get-under-your-skin-y than bloody, but since it’s creation it has been banned in several countries, on and off, including the USA.
As someone who enjoys a good horror movie, I quite like to watch these early silent ones. It seems like almost as soon as we could make movies, we wanted to be scared by films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and it’s often in these films that some amazing ingenuity and creativity were applied to film making in aid of getting the scares out of the audience. Whether or not you like these types of stories, these techniques are often tried out in horror films, and later used in other genres. This film is also interesting in that it’s an early example of a documentary. Though it’s got a lot of reenactment in it, it’s a factual story and is about getting history and facts across. Very interesting.
I also find that last chapter quite unusual. The film is trying to compare the treatment of women for hysteria and mental illness to a witch hunt, or to the tortures that witches underwent. Anyone who knows a little about the way that people have traditionally been treated in asylums and mental institutions will know how horrific that is. It’s an interesting ending.
See It If: perhaps not for everyone, it’s a fun one for horror lovers and film aficionados, I was really fascinated by the expensive sets and costumes.