The end of October heralds a noticeable shift in seasons. Change is evident in the crisper quality of the morning air, the availability of pumpkin spiced lattes causing excitement and eye rolls in equal measure and the clocks moving back – giving us in the UK an extra hour in bed. Along with that extra hour last weekend I annoyingly also gained a sore throat which turned into a diabolical cold. This, however, was not going to spoil my Halloween plans.
Having grumbled through a day at the office, and using my scary sounding chesty cough (aptly named the Halloween Hack) as my themed gimmick, I set off for the Phoenix cinema, an independent single screen cinema, in East Finchley for a very special event.
It’s rare in these times of mind-bending special effects and instant gratification that a silent film can cause excitement; Häxan, however, is a film worthy of such excitement. Directed by Benjamin Christensen and released in 1922, the film is a kind of docu-drama about witches, superstition, the dangerous mentality surrounding the witch hunts and the offering a ‘modern’ alternative to the historically suspicious ‘evidence’ proving a witch.
Told in seven defined parts, the film takes the viewer on a journey starting with a general lesson in context about demons and the occult from the Middle Ages, ancient concepts of the universe and heaven and hell, followed by dramatized examples of the superstition surrounding the devil and subsequent accusation, torture, trial and murder of those accused of being witches. (The devil being played on screen by Christensen himself) The film of course has musical accompaniment and title cards, but in Swedish.
Being an occult nerd, I had seen this film years and years ago – back in the days before streaming I rented this DVD through the post – and loved its almost clinical examination of the witch hysteria through human history told in an honest, strange and darkly funny manner, including offering hysteria in itself as a modern diagnosis for the so-called witch symptoms that had previously defied explanation.
|Slightly eerie projection|
Watching this film a century after its release, it’s actually hard to tell whether this is a genuine, ironic or cynically funny diagnosis, especially when Christensen includes a scene comparing a woman being given a ‘warm shower’ as part of her treatment (for hysteria) in a clinic as opposed to being burned at the stake if she had presented the same symptoms in the Middle Ages.
The chance to see this fabulous film on the big screen felt like a rare opportunity, but what made it super special was the accompaniment; the soundtrack being played live by Stephen Horne. Horne is a renowned silent film accompanist who has been resident at the BFI here in London for three decades and has also provided accompaniment at film festivals in Europe, Asia and America.
Sitting in the second row we were practically right next to him and words fail to be accurate in describing the richness added to the experience by having a live musician. While concentrating on keys, Horne’s variety of other instruments including bugle, xylophone, flute, Kalimba (also known as a Mbira) and even a Theremin! I’d never seen one of those wizard-like instruments played live before and I couldn’t help getting the Dr Who theme stuck in my head.
While live music was the icing on the cake, the sweet glace cherry on top was the live translation. While the title cards remained in Swedish, these were translated and read out (in the flesh) by none other than Reece Shearsmith (League of Gentlemen among many other mentions). I tried my best to contain my sneezing, coughing and germs in general while Shearsmith elegantly narrated the dry and oddly (sometimes unintentionally) funny text guiding us through the films journey of ignorance, fear and madness.
|Shearsmith applauding Horne as he bows|
After the lights came back up to warm applause I thanked Horne for his efforts, congratulating his multi-tasking skills and juggling of instruments throughout the film. I mentioned that the added drama of live music really suited the film, to which he said he felt it a rather melodramatic performance. I concurred, but replied that made it even more appropriate considering the tone and subject matter.
We were lucky enough to also have a very quick chat with Shearsmith – he had stayed behind and was greeting and taking photos with fans. My brain turned to mush when it was our turn, but I managed to thank him for his performance and asked if he knew the film before the event. He confirmed it was one of his favourites and he felt honoured to have been asked to narrate that evening. Graciously agreeing to a selfie I tried not to pass on any of my germs as I wished him a happy Halloween. What a perfect way to mark Halloween night.