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Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922) is strange and unique. Part documentary, part fiction and part anthropological exposition, the structure of the film’s narrative is tough to pin down. While slippery and difficult to handle, it is precisely the form of the film that makes the picture so engaging and challenging: detailed realism often transforms into disturbing psychological caricature, while consistently being framed by documentary objectivity and metatextual nods to the audience and the filmmaking process.
Christensen opens his picture by telling us that it’s ‘A presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures’. The first shot involves an iris-in to reveal a photograph of the director (labelled as such); he stares right back at us, creating a distance between the viewer and what is being watched. This film is, the inter-title and titled photograph suggest, an investigation on display rather than a fiction. The aesthetic of a lecture is continued in the first chapter which is composed only of inter-titles and a number of engravings and models. A pointer is used to indicate specific areas of the illustrations that the inter-titles explain. Christensen uses the first person singular pronoun in this section and, at the same time, consistently refers to other sources, generating in the process a conversation between different authorities: he points out, for example, that ‘The picture of a pyre as well as the following are from “German Life in the Past in Pictures”‘ and, on one occasion, hands over to ‘The English scientist Rawlinson and French scientist Maspero’. Christensen’s light-hearted comments make clear the objective treatment of his subject matter: we could not, with such ease, ‘Observe the eagerness with which the devils tend to fire under the cauldrons!’, if we were terrified we could, at some point, end up in them.
The reconstructed scenes of medieval witchcraft are viewed in the light of this opening chapter’s scientific presentation of the origins of belief. The scenes are remarkable, using low-key lighting and convincing art design to generate an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion, itself complimented by understated performances. We see Christensen’s invention in his editing decisions: he drives scenes forward with a confident use of close-ups, point-of-view shots and changes in the framing size and angle. In the scene in which Maria (Maren Pedersen), the elderly woman accused of being a witch, is interrogated by two priests (apparently playing good-cop bad-cop), use is also made of the space immediately beyond the frame. Each of the men has Maria by an arm and they begin to engage in a tug of war. Christensen does not shoot this as a static three-shot but instead shares the action between two static medium shots that each contain a man and Maria but frame out the third. With this construction, she is always partially filling the space beyond the frame, being pulled between the two shots. Instead of being at the centre, she is at the edge: this arrangement reveals more accurately the distribution of power.
Christensen creates some terrifying locations. For example, the pain of the torture chamber is accentuated by a rare movement of the camera. As a body lies supine ready to be stretched, the camera begins to pan left, following the chains that are tied to the feet. With the camera preempting the painful movement of the chains, the shot is dynamically lengthened and therefore, in this case, effective in a way that a static should would not be. But Christensen undermines his own atmosphere in the final chapter of the film. Here, locations are revisited and comments are made both about the psychological causes of witchcraft and the filming process. The tools of torture are transformed into hilarious reminiscences about the shoot: he tells us that ‘One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew when we were filming these pictures.’ Interestingly, this inter-title is then followed by a close shot of the actress, out of costume, laughing and undergoing the process. This shot, then, is a reconstruction of a moment that happened when the camera was turned off. Christensen’s light-hearted tone returns, when he says, ‘I will draw a veil over the dreadful confessions that I forced the young woman to make in less than a minute.’
This short section is illustrative of the larger play between fiction and fact in Häxan. While chapter seven seems to be conclusively demonstrating that witchcraft is a social illusion – a misdiagnosis – of the Middle Ages, Christensen also makes comments that challenge our clear-cut conclusion. Again he turns to another authority, though in this instance she is the ‘lovely old woman who plays the role of Maria the Weaver in my film’. He tells us that, ‘during a pause in the shoot‘ (my emphasis), she said, ‘The devil is real. I have seen him sitting at my bedside.’ The juxtaposition of this inter-title with a close up of the elderly woman’s face, so expressive with age, is moving. I’ve emphasised the fact that this incident happened between takes because it seems that Christensen regularly goes to the boarders of filmmaking – the edge of frame, the instances when the camera is off, the props and style of an anthropology lecture – for his important moments of problematised exposition.
I recently saw this inventive advertisement for The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm and released at the end of August this year. It’s an innovative use of a relatively new form of social networking and, as you can see, is particularly frightening to those who expect nothing but reality when they log in. It fits nicely with a mockumentary that plays with the division between what is fiction and what is fact. Just as the cynical preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) tries to expose demonic possession as a hoax, only to discover that it’s an all too frightful reality, so too do the unsuspecting users of Chatroulette find that what terrified them so much because it poses as the everyday is, in fact, nothing more than an advert.
Peeping Tom (1960) marked the beginning of the end for its director Michael Powell. Greeted with widespread critical disgust on its release, the film was pulled after only a week. Until his death in 1990, thirty years after the film’s debut, Powell was almost universally outcast. The Red Shoes (1948) was eclipsed. His reputation was stained.
Perhaps the picture so convincingly outraged critics because it suggests that appearances can be deceiving. The protagonist carries a modified camera: there is a fatal blade in one of the tripod legs and a large mirror attached to the front. While the audience knows from the opening sequence that Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) is the murderer, it never seems to make sense. His baby face, topped with blonde hair and encrusted with blue eyes, often expresses hyper-awkwardness in social situations; he is so acutely shy that for years his tenants don’t know that he is the homeowner. Even behind his black curtain, seated in his secret cinema, watching films of his recently murdered victims, he seems at once entranced and out of place.
Peeping Tom uncomfortably deconstructs boundaries: while the aforementioned black curtain physically separates Mark’s public and private spaces, the two easily overlap. The audience knows that he “never believed in locks” and sees the veil effortlessly moved aside. Helen (Anna Massey), propelled by her own curiosity, drifts from a party downstairs into the sanctum of his hidden cinema. This spatial division allegorically stands for Mark’s psyche: as Helen crosses the physical boundary from public into private space, she arouses Mark’s attention and, in so doing, is no longer considered a tenant but instead a love interest (and a potential victim). When Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley) sneaks her way in, she too crosses a mental boundary which cannot be uncrossed: she is nearly killed as a result.
The audience is exposed to the implicit voyeurism that film possesses throughout the picture. As Helen first disturbs Mark in his home-cinema, the camera observes the pair from high above and behind a series of shelves. Passive viewers become practising peeping toms. The opening sequence actually affords the audience a level of intimacy that surpasses that which Lewis achieves with his camera, beginning, as it does, with an extreme close-up of a prostitute’s eye. Lewis cannot get so close and remain unnoticed. Presumably, as Mark enters the brothel, most viewers choose not to look away. They instead are led passively into a morally ambiguous space.
Mark’s camera plays with the notions of murderer and victim as subtly as Powell blends the roles of passive audience and guilty voyeur. As he and his blade get closer, the prostitute’s reflection gets larger and more distorted in the attached mirror. Similarly, Vivian (Moira Shearer) becomes more disorientated the closer she is brought to herself and to her death. To come face-to-face with oneself is disgusting and dangerous: as the police inspector suggests, it produces a peculiar type of fear.
The most terrifying moments for me in Paranormal Activity (2007) are not when the film goes “bump”. The audience can expect something to happen when the digital camera’s timer stops moving in fast forward and each second becomes newly weighted with suspense. They may not know what is going to occur but a bed sheet inevitably blows and a door inevitably closes on its own.
Instead, the scariest shots are to be found in the pauses, in the moments when first-time writer and director Oren Peli decides to let his scene linger. Take the shot of Katie (Katie Featherston) lying in bed:
The audience can only see her head, which is positioned just to the left of the centre of the frame, as her body is covered by a beige quilt and surrounded by a black headboard. Most of the frame is taken up by this combined blank space. The balance of composition in this shot is similar to that in Ford Madox Brown’s painting Take Your Son, Sir! (1851- 6) which is also dominated by the flat white of cloth:
In both images, the viewer is forced to gaze at the faces of the figures. The unnamed woman in the painting has a face which is white and emaciated, presumably physically drained after childbirth. Her expression is ghostly and glazed. Katie’s face is also glazed and seems changed; her words are delivered in a monotonous manner, as if she is in a trance. Her sentiment confuses: she suddenly decides she wants to stay in the house, despite her earlier decision to remain with Micah (Micah Sloat). Peli allows the camera to linger for an uncomfortable few moments once she has finished her speech. She just sits and gazes glassy-eyed into the distance while the audience is forced to contemplate the disturbed figure in front of them.
I came away from the film not too affected but over the intervening weeks it has become increasingly thought provoking. It is the gradual deterioration of Katie’s mind that is retrospectively alarming. The titular paranormal activity is not the cause of the film’s effectiveness: it is instead the visible actions of the human puppets with which the invisible demon chooses to play. A slamming door and a scratched photograph are nothing when compared to the deterioration of the couple’s relationship, the lingering shot of Katie in bed and her somnambulant towering over a sleeping Micah.