Part horror movie (years before that term came into use), part documentary, this has to be one of the strangest films ever made. Benjamin Christensen was a Danish actor and director who had previously made two thrillers, Det Hemmelighedsfulde X and Haevnens Nat, which both showcased his remarkable sense for lighting, framing and editing - and his adventurousness in moving beyond the established basics.
Yet, nobody could have been prepared for Haxan (Danish title: Heksen). Many of the scenes were profoundly disturbing for contemporary audiences - and may still be so today. But what strikes the modern viewer is how cinematically exciting it is all done.
The camera has yet to move (Murnau's "floating camera" is still a couple of years away), but Christensen's expert framing and editing lends every sequence an exceptional dynamic quality. When choosing a subject for the camera, angle, and size, he is invariably right, giving an incredible flow to the film as a whole. There is not a dull moment - partly because the subject is so unflinchingly handled, partly because every scene is thoroughly composed.
There is some magnificent "special effects" work using double exposure and very believable models - including a broomstick ride to Bloksbjerg and the witches' sabbath (compare the flying sequence in Murnau's Faust!)
The acting is very fine with very little of the mannerisms we associate with silent films. Some of the actors were to have long and distinguished careers in Danish film and on the stage - among them Poul Reumert, Ib Schoenberg, Elith Pio, Clara Pontoppidan.
The print used in this edition is exceptionally well-preserved, and although I usually prefer plain b/w to the tints common at the time, the warm red (at times almost sepia) and deep blue used here, look magnificent.
Regarding the soundtrack, we are spoiled for choice: there's a newly recorded arrangement of the music played at the Danish premiere (using material from well-known compositions); then there's a very effective ambient soundtrack by electronic group Bronnt Industries Kapital; finally a score composed by Geoff Smith, performed by him on the hammered dulcimer. On future viewings, I'll be listening to either Bronnt or Smith - the dulcimer score perhaps being the most interesting in the long run.
This DVD is highly recommended to anyone interested in either silent films or the horror genre or both.