The Horror! The Witch! x4 – High Camp, transfiguration and expressionism
Halloween just passed but I’m still under its spell, so here I am, sharing with you four of the movies that kept me company these past days, all part of the unique (and infinite) vein of witch horrors. Of course, that’s an overstatement – it’s hard to step out of a stereotype that many titles do nothing but take it in stride (the evil witch with pointy nose, covered in warts), something that the movies below avoid or exploit excessively.
I cast aside the movies where the witch is a secondary character – here, instead, she is queen, as it should be – or an umbrella for some evil transfiguration. Here, spells have no logical explanation, they take place in a parallel realm of infinite possibilities. Which fetishizes the witch as a supernatural creature, a super-woman capable of moving mountains, locking children in a painting for the rest of their lives, fighting patriarchy. Of course, there has been talk of magic since the beginning of time, but witchcraft gained ground with the proliferation of medieval superstitions, which then led to the persecution of old women, awkward women, women with disabilities, or just women. Burning at the stake was, for centuries, a maneuver by the patriarchal domination, where the Church and the authorities joined hands. Over generations, over eight million women have died at the stake, been tortured and scorned. History, and the history of medicine, finally concluded that it was the primitivism of science – at the Salpêtrière sanatorium, at the end of the 19th century, only then is the mental illness called “hysteria” studied and rediscovered – paradoxically, its inventor, Jean-Martin Charcot, was a neurologist who documented hysteria through hypnosis. Didi-Huberman describes Salpêtrière as a “citta dolorosa, where four thousand women with mental illness or incurable diseases were imprisoned; it was a nightmare in the middle of the Belle Epoque.” No wonder there is still a latent fear of witches – somewhere in the collective male subconscious, there is a fear of women’s independence, a fear of empowerment. Either way, witchcraft is clearly associated with feminism.
Häxan (or Witchcraft throughout history) – (dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
Häxan may well be the first film in history to dissect witchcraft into a somewhat-theoretical form. But Christensen does not stop here: the film starts with a figurative analysis of the mural paintings portraying demons and mages dating from the time of Persia, of the European Medieval Churches, and so on, which are essentially marked by a mountain of superstitions now ridiculous (for example, demons living in a sphere in the depths of the earth). Then, he embarks on an expressionist dramatization of these beliefs, on some sort of proto-docu-drama in several chapters; the year is 1922, when Nosferatu and Caligari also come out – on an aesthetic and narrative level, Häxan is on a par with the latter two.
Christensen himself appears in the role of the Devil, puts on his horns, rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue at old crones. There is a very meta and naughty tone in the comments appearing in the intertitles (Christensen tries out a torture device on an actress in the film, at her insistence, and says he extracted colossal information from her), as well as all sorts of exaggerations that are simply delicious (for example, the witches would stop to cast spells on used shoes or, after their annual meetings, they would sneak out of boredom into some barn to enchant cows). His intention, however, is to get to the subject of hysteria, to Charcot (and, ultimately, to modern times): to the persecution of witches, to their trials, and to the absurdity of the fact that all evils were pinned on them (that they bring lightning by enchanting barrels of water, that they drove the nuns mad, etc.). Jonathan Romney describes the film, in 1994, as a delirium that fetishizes Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings; to be honest, no one knew how to take this movie with so much personality and so much appetite for scandal. Häxan was banned in the US, it was re-edited by Christensen twenty years after its release, thus taking advantage of the appearance of the sound; here, he appears in the intro, like Lars von Trier in The Kingdom, to explain what the film is about. With all its technical primitivism, based on superimposition, I am left with a beautiful image – a young man sits and meditates on a hill on a full moon night; above him, bathed in bluish light, hordes of witches pass flying on their brooms high into the sky.
The film has recently undergone a restoration by Criterion and is available for free on Youtube.
Black Sunday (or La maschera del demonio) – (dir. Mario Bava, 1960)
“IT certainly is very strange in this forest,” remarks the coachman. This is how one of the very first reviews of this wonderful 1960 film begins, a milestone year for horror films (it sees the arrival of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Hitchcock’s Psycho, and last but not least, of Georges Franju’s mask-themed gothic masterpiece, Les Yeux sans Visage). Black Sunday is the directorial debut of cinematographer Mario Bava, who was already a shy mogul of Italian genre films (he gave shape to all films from the ’50s and the ’60s, except for Spaghetti Westerns and sex comedies, although, as David Cairns sums up, he will end up making these movies as well; he was often relied upon to complete projects that were begun and left unfinished by other filmmakers). Last but not least, Bava is the spiritual father of the giallo horror. Black Sunday is an adaptation of Gogol’s short story Viy, but I don’t know why I even bother mentioning it; Bava himself is quite proud that he chopped Gogol’s ideas so much that there was nothing left of Gogol in the film. This detail is not meant to scare anyone, Black Sunday is a masterpiece reclaimed much later because the film has overseen numerous alterations in terms of language, dubbing, editing. Critics at Cahiers du Cinema loved it, and it’s clear why – for its gothic-atmospheric beauty. The whole film is haunted by a Frankensteinian thick haze, a choking sulfur-like fog rises from the ground: Asa, a medieval witch (played by Barbara Steele, at the beginning of her career) is killed by her brother after he finds out that she practices black magic. Speaking of masks and Franju, the witch is killed with a voodoo mask with sharp spikes that the executioners hammer into her face. On the verge of death, she vows to return from the dead and take revenge. Classic. Now, the locations and the set design are all extremely improvised in terms of props and special effects (starting from this forest where the branches of the trees look like threads, they curl into each other, much to the coachman’s dismay). The same coachman is seen in slow motion, riding against the apocalyptic wind, in a short sequence that certainly served as inspiration for Béla Tarr’s The Horse of Turin (2011).
There are so many absolutely gorgeous details of Gothic architecture, which Bava is so preoccupied with to make it look as realistic as possible, in a setting so made-up that you forget about any narrative continuity. Bonus: Steele performs phenomenally with her eyes, there’s something frightening in her catatonic behavior and wicked witch-forlorn princess double act.
The Witches (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1990)
Speaking of witches with pointy noses, covered in warts – here, Anjelica Huston plays the Grand High Witch, the all-powerful leader of the world’s witches, in a sequence that terrorized so many children (yes, Roeg’s film apparently is a children’s movie, but only apparently, because otherwise it’s built as a dementedly grotesque high camp fest). In this anthological sequence, which Roeg has shot from so many different perspectives, from the shaky camera to low, distorted angles, witches from all over England meet at a convention. They look like a bunch of old biddies, who scratch their heads from time to time, make all sorts of faces in their effort to see through their worn glasses, their feet ache from all this walking. Which leads to the big reveal: Huston asks her aides to lock the doors so the witches can show their true faces. Each of them takes off their wig (to be clear, theirs is not a simple wig, but it covers the whole face): their skin is red and rashy, they have blackened teeth and pointy chins. Huston, even as an ugly crone, has the same refined gestures as when she is dressed like a femme fatale, the wide flirtatious hand movements, the delicate grasp of the cigarette case, the little black dress strangled around her waist. When I was a child, my grandmother enjoyed teasing me with the story of the old woman in the living room painting who abducts children who refuse to take their afternoon nap; I was struggling to fall asleep, out of fear not to be taken and trapped in the painting. This film’s narrative is actually quite similar: a little girl is dragged and locked in a painting that her own father painted, and she is forced to live there; she grows old, and, in the end, disappears, a sign that she may have died. Should I also mention that the protagonist, an innocent kid, is turned into a mouse? And one more thing: Roeg visually alternates between the perspective of this rodent, for which the world becomes gigantic, and the perspective of the grown-ups.
The Witches (1990) is available on Netflix, and its 2020 remake of the same name, directed by Robert Zemeckis, can be seen on HBO GO.
The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller, 2016)
There is a line somewhere in Häxan saying that, now that they are no longer persecuted by the Church, the only thing the witches need to be afraid of is the law. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is not hunted by such fears, although she is being sought by the police for murder. In short, Biller talks about the dual occupation of benign witches, who only cast love spells (how harmless they can be compared to turning children into chickens); in fact, Elaine doesn’t perform rituals for no one else but herself. The twist is that, although she wants to be loved, as soon as the men she seduces become all soft and clingy, she loses all interest in them, and the only way to blow them off is to dig their grave. There is something paradoxical here in the simple construction of the character: Elaine is a young woman, thin as a thread, very à la Lana del Rey, who lives in a Camp shrine for witches (she checks all the boxes for feminist empowerment), but wants to be the ultimate fantasy for any man, that is, to encourage the male gaze; she performs striptease numbers for them, cooks them meat with vegetables, calls them pet names. It’s not clear if Elaine’s behavior is genuine or just an act – be that as it may, Biller is not interested in clarifying the protagonist’s intentions, but in the gender dynamics prompted by her attitude. The shift in her behavior, or the moment when Elaine becomes the evil witch, is sudden and uncontrollable, as if she were struggling between being good (and here, being good means being obedient) and being in control (being the bad witch, that is). Biller therefore comments on the patriarchal mythologies created around witches (sometimes in a school-like manner, through discussions about oppression, sometimes in a cheeky way, when grown-ass men don’t know what a tampon looks like). This commentary is accompanied by an elaborate candy-pink plastic set to match the aesthetic of a 1960s Technicolor film, thus parodying the American romantic comedies of the time with housewives and suit-and-tie men. There’s also an anecdote about a group of men who want to burn Elaine at the stake once they find out she’s a witch, but one of them needs to remind them: you can’t do that anymore, those days are long gone!