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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English Stereo
  • English Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Includes both Haxan and Witchcraft Through the Ages
  • Music from the original Danish premiere, arranged by film music specialist Gillian Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra, presented in Dolby Digital 5.0
  • Commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg
  • Benjamin Christensen's introduction to the 1941 re-release
  • A short selection of outtakes
  • Bibliothèque Diabolique: a photographic exploration of Christensen's historical sources
  • Stills gallery

Haxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages


Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Benjamin Christensen
Starring: Benjamin Christensen
1922 | 104 Minutes | Licensor: Svensk Filmindustri

Release Information
DVD | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #134
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: October 16, 2001
Review Date: September 22, 2019

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SYNOPSIS

Grave robbing, torture, possessed nuns, and a satanic Sabbath: Benjamin Christensen's legendary film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the middle ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients. But the film itself is far from serious--instead it's a witches' brew of the scary, gross, and darkly humorous. The Criterion Collection is proud to present two versions of this genre-defying "documentary," for the first time ever on DVD.

Forum members rate this film 8.4/10

 

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PICTURE

The Criterion Collection’s 2001 DVD edition of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc. The standard-definition presentation comes from a restoration conducted by Svensk Filmindustri. It was scanned from a 35mm low-contrast print and the frame rate has been adjusted to 20 frames-per-second.

For the time this looked decent enough, looking sharp with a stunning amount of detail at times, but artifacts have always been an issue and they are more in-your-face now. There are several jagged edges throughout the film and shimmering is a constant problem during shots with tighter patterns and details. The titles (which were digitally recreated due to the originals being lost) also present some artifacting and noise around the font. Compounded with Macroblocking in the shadows of a number of shots all of this leads to a digital looking picture. This has always been the case, but you could overlook them on a standard CRT television. Upscaled on a high-def or 4K television and the issues become far more rampant.

The print is better than I would have expected but damage is still heavy, with plenty of scratches, tears, seams, dirt, stains, and so on. The film has been tinted as well, with sequences running either red or blue (the new Blu-ray tints things a bit differently), and the colours look okay but I always found the red tint (seeming to be exclusive to daytime sequences) a bit irritating.

In the end the restoration is okay, impressive for the time, but it’s all ruined by an incredibly problematic digital presentation that has not held up.

5/10

All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The film is silent but Criterion includes a score created by Gillian B. Anderson, presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.0 surround. The score is based on what would have played for the film’s premiere.

Which track you go with probably depends on your home-audio set-up as they both are the same quality-wise. The score itself is not showy and pretty low-key. But it’s clear, shows some adequate range, and the 5.0 track does mix things effectively to the rear speakers.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion put out a rather decent special edition for the film, which also includes the 1968 version of the film, Witchcraft Through the Ages, featuring a jazz score by Daniel Humair and narration by William S. Burroughs. This version runs a half-hour shorter than the main feature, running 76-minutes, significantly cutting down the opening and trimming a number of sequences along the way. The film is also black-and-white, dropping the coloured tinting. The beatnik undercurrent to this version, thanks to the score (which features Jean-Luc Ponty on violin) and Burroughs’ monotone narration, makes this version a bit of a hoot but in all honesty it’s more of a curio than much else. Restoration-wise it actually doesn’t look too terrible. Scratches and marks litter it but I was honestly expecting worse. The digital presentation is fine, but it has its fair share of artifacts as well. The sound is tinny and flat, though, very weak, but then that only seems to aid Burroughs’ delivery.

For the main feature film scholar Casper Tybjerg provides an audio commentary for the film, recorded initially for this release. Tybjerg starts things off by explaining the structure of the track, with him focusing on Christensen during the 16-minute “introduction” of the film, and then focusing on specific sequences and such throughout the rest. I appreciate the structure and this help Tybjerg cover a lot of material in an orderly and straight-forward fashion, though it admittedly does make the track a little stale and dry. But getting past that there is a lot here, with Tybjerg covering the film’s innovations (from various editing and filming techniques to how certain special effects were accomplished) and getting into the vast amount of sources behind sequences in the film. On top of all of this he gets into the various versions of the film (including the 1941 re-release) and touches on Christensen’s career before and after. Despite me feeling the track can be maybe too academic, lacking any real sense of fun, it is loaded with a great amount of material around the film and its subject matter that still makes it incredibly rewarding.

Criterion then includes the 8-minute introduction Christensen, filmed for the 1941 re-release. It was mentioned in Tybjerg’s commentary that there were concerns around re-releasing a silent film in 1941 and it feels this intro is supposed to address that, by having Christensen explain how the film wouldn’t work with talking. This is then followed by a couple of galleries put together by Tybjerg. Bibliothèque diabolique presents the artwork that appears during the opening of the film, providing history and context for them, while a small stills gallery presents a collection of production photos for the film. There is then a short text note on the origins of the score, while offering the option to set the 2.0 stereo score or the 5.0 surround score.

Impressively Tybjerg was able to dig up outtakes from the film, running under 5-minutes. There is some footage of the studios as well as footage of the cathedral that appears in the film, but most interesting is what appears to be test footage for the flying witches sequences, which Tybjerg goes over in the commentary.

The release then closes off with an insert featuring an essay on the film by Chris Fujiwara, followed by an essay on the score by Gillian B. Anderson.

Despite any other shortcomings in other areas of the release Criterion has still put together a very well-rounded and satisfying set of supplements.

8/10

CLOSING

A fine enough special edition but the video presentation does not hold up well at all thanks to intrusive digital artifacts.


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