Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968)

As a huge sucker for both cinematic depictions of witches and the surrealist horrors of beat generation author William S. Burroughs, I was always predestined to enjoy Witchcraft Through the Ages at least a little bit. An experimental work assembled by beat filmmaker Antony Balch, Witchcraft Through the Ages re-interprets the landmark 1922 documentary Häxan for the druggy counterculture crowd of the late 60s. Satanism has a long history with hippie culture thanks to folks like Anton LaVey, so it makes sense that Balch would want to revive one of the great early cinematic works that depicts the Devil in the flesh for the stoners of his era. The spirit of Witchcraft Through the Ages is closely aligned with the dark times of the 1990s when outlets like Turner Classic Movies “colorized” black & white films to appeal to young audiences’ disinterest in outdated formats. Balch similarly punches up Häxan by shortening its runtime, soundtracking its imagery with the weirdo jazz of Daniel Humair, and lessening its challenge as a silent film by employing Burroughs, one of history’s greatest voices, to narrate. With jazzed up dialogue in its updated intertitles and a 77min runtime designed to maintain even the most drugged out of attention spans, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels like Balch tricking young weirdos into eating their Landmark Cinema vegetables by emphasizing the already-present exploitation film pleasures of its imagery. Häxan already openly gawks at the visual stimulation of witchy & Satanic iconography; Witchcraft Through the Ages pushes those cheap thrills just slightly further to de-emphasize its more educational endeavors. The only shame is that with Burroughs on hand to enhance Haxan director Ben Christensen’s already potent imagery, it could have done so much more than that.

As blasphemous (to God and to cinema) as Witchcraft Through the Ages appears to be from the surface, it’s a surprisingly tame work. Burroughs’s narration sticks fairly close to Häxan‘s original narrative, just at an accelerated pace. He even opens the film with the detailed history of how ancient Egypt believed the universe to be physically structured, just barreling through the details, maintaining the gist but wasting no time. That history lesson, along with later challenges to how The Church & The State have long used accusations of witchcraft to control & oppress, fit right in with the writer’s usual pet topics (especially in relation to his Western Lands trilogy). The disappointing thing is that Ben Christensen’s original film is already a timelessly powerful work on its own, so it feels pointless to have someone as cosmically talented as Burroughs on hand if he’s just going to color within the lines. I can happily listen to the author rattle on about Inquisitions, “old biddies,” torture, The Devil’s children, and “showing respect for Satan by kissing his ass” for hours, but Balch should have been smarter in allowing Burroughs’s voice to pervert the material. Whenever Burroughs isn’t talking & Humair’s jazz is allowed to overpower the soundtrack, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels intellectually pointless. Any personally-curated soundtrack synced up with Christensen’s original film would have the same effect, maybe even doing less to undercut the already-present sex humor & skip over minutes of Christensen’s eternally demonic imagery. Balch seems content to split the time evenly between Hunier’s jazz & Burroughs’s voice, which is just as much of a mistake as guiding his narrator to stick to the original intent of the script. In many ways, Witchcraft Through the Ages is not nearly blasphemous enough.

Theoretically, there’s a better version of this movie that plays like a 77min poem. If Burroughs were allowed to run wild with narrated, on-topic witchy versions of his cut-ups experiments like The Ticket that Exploded as a counter-balance to Christensen’s presented-as-is imagery, Witchcraft Through the Ages would stand a much better chance as a worthwhile perversion of (the far superior) Häxan instead of just a fascinating footnote. As is, it already kind of works like cut-ups: the results of the experiment are often fruitless, but when all elements at play line up just right, it feels like a work of cosmic genius. I’m not sure if Balch’s respect for Häxan dictated that he maintain its intended, educational effect in this jazzy update or if this idea was just hastily slapped together without proper thought given to the exciting ways it could go rogue. Either way, Christensen’s witchy imagery & Burroughs’s authorial voice are undeniably more impressive as separate entities than they come across as in this post-modern collaboration. That doesn’t mean that Witchcraft Through the Ages isn’t a fun, fascinating watch. A frenetic, jazzed up runthrough of Häxan featuring William S. Burroughs is just an inherently exciting idea, one that leads to many stray moments of brilliance even in its surprisingly well-behaved adherence to tradition. A more chaotic, poetic version of this same collaboration could have lead to something much more transcendent, however, a cinematic version of real life witchcraft.

-Brandon Ledet

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