William S. Burroughs gets spooky

The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages, or Häxan, is a Swedish-Danish film that is a curious and groundbreaking mix of documentary and silent horror cinema, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Christensen’s vision was unique, basing his film on non-fiction works, mainly the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft he found in a Berlin bookshop, as well as a number of other manuscripts, books, illustrations and treatises on witches and witch-hunting . Häxan was envisaged, as stated in the opening credits, as a “presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures”. While the film’s format is centered on its dramatic scenes portrayed by actors, the first chapter, lasting 13 minutes, is a different story. With its documentary style and scholarly tone — featuring a number of photographs of statuary, paintings, and woodcuts — it would have been entirely novel — a style of screened illustrated lecture which wouldn’t become popular till many years later. Reportedly the most expensive film of the Swedish silent film era, Häxan was actually banned in the United States, and heavily censored in other countries. In 1968, an abbreviated version of the film was released. Titled Witchcraft Through the Ages, it featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair and dramatic narration by the always spooky and unnerving William S. Burroughs.

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