Thursday, July 10, 2008

Devilry Afoot

I have recently viewed two silent films, both of which were interesting (among other reasons) for their demonic/occult imagery.

L'Inferno (1911) is hailed as the first Italian feature film, and fittingly uses the Dante epic, via close parallels to Gustave Dore's inspired imagery, for the poet's excursion through Hell. While the actors playing Dante and Virgil have all the finesse of a high school drama club, the visual settings are interesting. We don't necessarily get the wide vistas of Dore - huge lakes of the damned writhing in agony - but each circle is a set piece showing the agonies of heretics, usurers, gluttons, and other medieval ne'er-do-wells. The torturing demons, with their large strap-on wings listlessly flapping, are a hoot, and the special effects are state-of-the-art (for 1911). An acquaintance with Dante's poem, or a copy of the Dore illustrations on your lap so that you can follow along, are recommended. The modern soundtrack by the electronica band Tangerine Dream is forgettable.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), a Swedish film, is a more satisfying production, replete with little old ladies riding brooms through the air and kissing the Devil's buttocks. An attractive young woman is tortured, with the filmmaker dwelling lovingly on the torture devices, and there are also lecherous monks. Particularly giggle-inducing is the seducing Devil, with his perpetually wiggling tongue. The film takes the form of a rational essay on how witch hysteria during the Middle Ages arose from psychological disorders and persecution of social misfits. Several vingettes tell the story, which, after the introductory "chapters", moves a bit faster than most silent films. The end of the film provides "modern" examples of hysterical activity. *

Watching silent films, especially if you haven't been exposed to them before, can be an exercise in patience. My son and I have made a game of reading the story cards as many times as we can before we get back to the action. Apparently, people in the early 20th century read veeeerrrryyy ssssloooowwwwlyyyy. But once you get into it, it can be a satisfying experience, especially for anyone interested in history of the cinema.

*Addendum: I neglected to mention that the Haxan disc also includes a 1968 reissue of the film with narration by everyone's scariest uncle, William S. Burroughs. He supplies a suitably spooky incantation at the beginning, but, as I didn't discover this version until I had already sat through the original, I didn't watch much of it. A soundtrack featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, among others, is also featured.

Both films are available from Nexflix and Amazon.

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