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Instantly banned or else heavily censored upon its release in 1922, Häxan is a little-seen oddity from cinema’s silent era. A precursor to the folk horror sub-genre that was popularised in the 1960 and ’70s, the film masterfully combines horror, documentary, animation and woodcut techniques to take viewers on a surreal journey through the history of witchcraft.
Reece Shearsmith has been obsessed with Häxan ever since discovering it on British television in his early teens – so much so that he revisits it every year on Halloween. So when multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne approached Shearsmith performing director Benjamin Christensen’s original narration as part of a new live score, it was a dream come true for the actor, writer and comedian. Ahead of only their second ever presentation of Häxan at Flatpack Festival in Birmingham later this month, we caught up with the League of Gentleman and Inside No. 9 co-creator to find out just how the film has influenced his work, and why he’s relishing the current folk horror revival.
“One of the exciting things about Häxan is how modern it feels. It starts in this strange sort of documentary way with the director, Benjamin Christensen, giving you this lecture about the potted history of witchcraft and supernatural, superstitious beliefs. Then you get into this extraordinary sequence where they depict a witch’s hovel, and there are these amazing special effects that come out of nowhere with these witches flying through the air and people giving birth to monsters and devils. It’s beautiful, and it’s got this strange fairy tale quality that something like Night of the Hunter has as well.
“That whole witch trial period has always fascinated me, and it’s very pertinent to what’s happening today, I think. Obviously there was no #MeToo in the 14th century, but it’s interesting to watch it now and see how far and how little we’ve come. There’s a lot of humour in it too; Christensen himself plays the devil himself which is quite funny. It’s lovely that people are interested in the film again – William Burrows famously did a voiceover for it when it was re-visited and in fact re-edited in the ’60s, but since then it’s rarely been screened to the public.
“I first saw Häxan on Channel 4 one night, I must have been about 12 or 13 and it was around the time I was becoming aware of stuff like Todd Brown’s Freaks. I was already well into horror, I had a lot of horror books and even a woodcut depicting Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder general, with all his demons and his imps. It had a big impact on me. There’s obviously the subject matter but there’s also something about the crudeness of it that makes it frightening. We’ve tried, in The League of Gentleman and Inside No. 9, to use some of the same in-camera effects. There’s just something great about the old-fashionedness of it.
“It’s interesting now to trace the lineage of Häxan through films like The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, and Ben Wheatley’s film, A Field in England, which I did. It’s that old English sensibility of MR James, the horror that comes from the land itself. There’s something in the woods, you know. In The Wicker Man you have the strange cultishness of that island that ensnares Edward Woodward, and in A Field in England there’s this circular element of transcendental experience, of getting onto a higher plane. You have a situation now where people of my generation who grew up with these great ’70s horrors are starting to revisit those films in their own work. There’s a real comfort in those films to me. I suppose I’m just trying to cling onto the things I loved when I was little.”
Flatpack Festival runs 13-22 April at various venues across Birmingham. For info and tickets visit flatpackfestival.org.uk
Published 12 Apr 2018
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