Synopsis: 1968 abbreviated version of the original 1922 film, with a run time of 77 minutes as opposed to the original’s 104 minutes. This version featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair (played by a quintet including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and Daniel Humair on percussion) and dramatic narration by William S. Burroughs.
eyelights: its campy performances.
eyesores: its discrepant score. William S Burrows’ disinterested narration.
“Oh, learned men, I saw the witches kiss the evil one on his behind.”
In 1967, British film distributor Antony Balch took it upon himself to produce a new cut of ‘Häxan‘, the 1922 faux-doc by Benjamin Christensen. Released in 1968, it truncated the original film down to 77 minutes and featured a narration by none other than counterculture icon William S. Burrows.
Retitled ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’, it contributed nothing new to the material aside for an alternate interpretation of the images and scenes depicted in the original. It also went for a black and white look (instead of the original’s tinted look) and exchanged the classical score for a mostly jazzy one.
Now, I neither hate jazz nor do I mind an alternate score (though I always prefer the intended one, which was lovingly recreated for the Criterion DVD release), but it must be said that watching a documentary on witchcraft backed by an experimental jazz score feels completely out of place.
A good example of an alternate score that succeeds tremendously can be found with Richard Einhorn’s score to ‘La passion de Jeanne d’Arc’, perhaps one of the most brilliant compositions I’ve ever heard, bar none: Einhorn studied the era and created a score that would be fitting musically and lyrically.
It’s not the source material that’s the problem, either: Icelandic musician Barði Jóhannsson released a ‘Häxan’-inspired album in 2006 that is far superior to this jazz one. But 1967 was a trippy year and I’m guessing that the Daniel Humair-led jazz group were going a bit wild in the recording studio.
Here even the most atmospheric scenes are treated with complete disregard, with Humair and company pounding away as though they weren’t even following the images on screen (ex: there’s this scene towards the end when a monk asks to be flagellated and out came these unusual vocalizations).
What in the world were they thinking?
And what was Balch doing when he decided to hire William S. Burrows to croak out a narration overtop? One of the things that made the original so delicious was Christensen’s personalized touch, lending the film a campy quality. Here, Burrows is dispassionate, utterly detached from the material.
It really spoils the fun.
It was, however, interesting to compare this adaptation of the source material. Burrows frequently served up a mildly different interpretation from the one that Christensen carefully crafted so many years prior. It wasn’t entirely different, they were just nuances, but it was fascinating to compare the two.
Still, ultimately, on its own, ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is a much inferior film than ‘Häxan’ was. Although it keeps the structure and much of the material, it completely jettisons the delightful tone of the original and strips it of its more artistic qualities – reducing it to a mere curiosity with no replay value.
See the original first – if you must see this one.
Date of viewing: October 10, 2016