Haxan is a unique addition to the list in that it is blend of fiction, documentary, and animation. A 1921 Swedish film, it is based on director Benjamin Christensen's study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century guide for German inquisitors. The film is considered Christensen's masterpiece and its central thesis is that the superstition of the Dark Ages led to misreading mental illness and disease as witchcraft and devil worship. The film covers the history and representation of witchcraft and reenacts the torture methods and trails of those accused of witchcraft as well as the supposed rituals and spells used by witches.
This documentary greatly resembled the horror films of its era and it was interesting to me for several reasons. But more than a scholarly fascination for the subject matter, I had a vetted emotional interest in this film because it was just another example of the unfair treatment of women throughout the centuries. The scenes that play out the trail of Maria the Weaver, an old woman accused of witchcraft by the wife of a dying man, were hard to watch. Later, the same woman who accused Maria the Weaver was accused by one of the clergymen to whom she first reached out to for help. The clergyman claimed that the woman had bewitched him and she appears to him in visions, tempting the holy man. The woman is imprisoned and later tricked into confessing to witchcraft through the false promise of freedom for her and her infant child. This scene was preceded by a title card in which Christensen apologized if he depicted this event too darkly, a foreboding warning that had me in suspense.
The film was beautiful in its grotesqueness and wonderfully frightening in its depictions of Satan, portrayed by Christensen himself. I can see this film and its message being considered exceptionally progressive at the time of it's release. However, the end of the film embraces the female disease of hysteria, a disease we now know to be invalid medical terminology, to say the least. Still, I'll give Christensen his due nearly a century after the release of this film for being so forward thinking as to not only publicly denounce witchcraft and the mania of witch hunts but also for having the balls to depict Satan on screen. Bold move, sir.
Haxan is listed in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before you Die, a book I intend to own soon, and it says of the film, "Part earnest academic exercise in correlating ancient fears with misunderstandings about mental illness and part salacious horror movie, Häxan is truly a unique work that still holds power to unnerve, even in today's jaded era." I concur.
On an almost entirely opposite spectrum lies the timeless classic, Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Lon Chaney. If, like me, you were born in the early '90s and raised on a healthy diet of Cartoon Network and Disney's golden era of animated films, then you may have first been exposed to the Hugo tale in all of it's Disney musical glory at some point in your youth. How old were you when you found out almost the entirety of the animated film's narrative was retconned from it's original source material? While I haven't seen every single adaptation of the novel, which includes 14 films, 4 television series, 2 radio shows, 5 plays, and numerous musical theater and ballets, I can almost guarantee that each version has received some sort of story treatment. In the Disney musical, for instance, not only was Quasimodo made the story's protagonist, but both he and Esmerelda were spared their horrible fate and Captain Phoebus was not a minor antagonist like he was in the novel.
The Lon Chaney flick focused on Esmerelda, which was a pleasant surprise, and while her death was removed at the end of the film, Quasimodo's wasn't. Although this was a very different story from the one I grew up with, without an adorably animated Quasi, sweetly voiced by Tom Hulce, and hilarious singing gargoyles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame still managed to touch me and make me cry. I was especially moved by Patsy Ruth Miller's performance as Esmerelda, who was portrayed as younger and more naive than the street-smart Demi Moore voiced version of the dancing Romani woman I had grown up admiring. I had also always quietly admired Quasimodo, who, in the Disney film, was never embittered by other people's treatment of him and strived to find the beauty in everything; but in this iteration, I felt something more akin to pity than admiration because Lon Chaney's Quasimodo was bitter and full of hatred for his fellow mankind. Of course, who can blame him? Overall, however, I think Esmerelda's compassion and Quasimodo's innocence are perfectly captured in both versions. It's also easy to see the visual cues the animated Quasimodo took from Lon Chaney's portrayal, especially in regards to the way he dresses.
The change in Claude Follo's character both was and wasn't the most obvious deviation from the novel. In this adaptation, Follo was almost split into two characters: Dom Claude and Jehan. The two men are brothers but also complete opposites; Jehan is the evil Frollo analog and Quasimodo's master while Claude is the saintly archdeacon of Notre Dome. Much like Disney, it looks like the film wanted to avoid characterizing a man of the church as cruel, lustful, and envious, so the character Jehan was created to avoid this conundrum. Dom Claude reminds me of the archdeacon in the Disney film; in both versions, he is the only person aside from Esmerelda to show Quasimodo any kindness.
I think the most notable thing about the film, visually and technically speaking (not counting the great make-up work on Lon Chaney), is of course the spectacular sets to evoke France during the time of Louis XI's reign. However, I was also taken y the film's use of sound effects. So far, this is the first silent film I've seen to have anything other than music for sound (I refuse to acknowledge The Golem's weak attempts at this same feat). In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you could hear the ringing of the bells of Notre Dame, the chatter of the Court of Miracles, and the whiplash during Quasimodo's public flogging. I thought, perhaps, these sound effects were added in a later remastering of the movie, but I can't find any definitive answer for this. If anyone knows, please feel free to share the knowledge in the comments below.
Join me next time as I write about The Last Laugh, a 1924 film by F. W. Murnau, the same mind behind Nosferatu. Following that, I'll be seeing for the first time The Thief of Bagdad, an American swashbuckling film. As a lover of all things pirate, I'm excited for that one. See you then!
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