Saturday, 26 October 2013

Haxan (1922)

Haxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) is a silent black and white Swedish documentary on witchcraft from the 1920s. Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Double double.
There's not much point giving a plot breakdown for Haxan. There isn't really a plot, as such, just interlinking episodes connected by factual background information. We see some bad medieval ladies casting spells and partying with Satan. We see a couple witch trials. We jump to the modern era and Christensen makes his case (probably progressive in the 20s) that witchcraft was really mental illness. The film ends with the abrupt accusation "SLUT", which is apparently Swedish for "The End".

I was really rooting for Haxan, really ready to like it, if only because "so I saw this awesome silent Swedish documentary on witchcraft"would be such a great way to start a conversation. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged well. Both the documentary and horror genres were in their infancy in the 20s, and Christensen isn't particularly prophetic on either front.

I love silent movies and think they're often unfairly criticized, but there's a lot to criticize here: the inconsistent acting, the occasionally ludicrous costumes, fact that nothing, literally nothing, happens for the first quarter-hour. The biggest problem is that no one on Haxan seems to have realized that what you don't see, or only think you see, is much scarier than what you do see. Every time Christensen fills his frame with cavorting demons and leering devils (and he's very fond of this) they get further from scary and closer to cute.

Finally, the Wagner score Criterion chose to accompany this film was apparently true to authorial intent, but that doesn't make it easier for a modern audience to take seriously. I can't be the only one who hears certain melodies and immediately thinks of Bugs Bunny sitting on a pony, batting his eyelashes.

If you were a teenage boy in the 1920s, Haxan would have been a good way to see naked girls. Beyond that, it's hard to recommend.

Monday, 14 October 2013

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932), which Wikipedia claims is Hollywood's first zombie flick, is ruthlessly, remorselessly stupid (thus setting the bar for a lot of zombie flicks).

A film that cannot be saved by Bela Lugosi in a tux.
Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), the 1930s' most annoying newlyweds-to-be, have arrived in Haiti for their destination wedding. Inconveniently, every male they meet immediately lusts after Madeleine, who is apparently the only woman in a 100-mile radius. Madeleine's list of would-be suitors includes annoying plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who teams up with annoying voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi; yes, the character's name is actually Murder) to zombify Madeleine. This is not difficult because Madeleine barely has two brain cells to rub together. Once Madeleine is zombified our heroes and villains run all over Haiti fighting for her while she wanders around looking stunned. The appropriate parties are dispatched in convenient ways, Madeleine is apparently de-zombified (though it's not easy to tell) and we, the audience, have wasted an hour of our lives.

Most of the reviews I've read for White Zombie blast the acting, which is unfair. The performances are dated (they're not bad, they just veer into the more melodramatic silent style), but they're solid. White Zombie's real problem is that these actors have nothing to work with (except, in Bellamy's case, some funky vintage costumes). Bland script, boring characters, dumb cinematography. And although I hate to shoot fish in barrels, this film is as cringe-inducingly racist as you might expect of a 1930s movie called White Zombie. A product of its time, perhaps, but there are still some absolutely squirm-worthy moments.

Some people enjoy a good bad movie. I am one of them. If you go into White Zombie knowing that it's a curio, not a classic, you might have a good time. Or you could just, you know, watch something that's actually good. Do what you want, I guess.

SCENE STEALER: There's not much to salvage in White Zombie, but Bela Lugosi does his fighting best. Fresh off of 1931's Dracula, Lugosi was probably used to being the coolest person in the room. Still, even he can't pull off those ginormous prosthetic eyebrows. For real, it looks like twin caterpillars crawled onto his face and died.