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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Music from the original Danish premiere, arranged by film music specialist Gillian Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra, presented in Dolby Digital 5.0
  • Commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg
  • A short selection of outtakes
  • Biblioth
  • Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968), the 76-minute version of H
  • Director Benjamin Christensenís introduction to the 1941 rerelease
  • An essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, remarks on the score by Gillian B. Anderson, and an essay by scholar Chloť Germaine Buckley

Haxan

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Benjamin Christensen
1922 | 104 Minutes | Licensor: Svensk Filmindustri

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #134
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: October 15, 2019
Review Date: September 22, 2019

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SYNOPSIS

Grave robbing, torture, possessed nuns, and a satanic Sabbath: Benjamin Christensenís legendary silent film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients. Far from a dry dissertation on the topic, the film itself is a witchesí brew of the scary, the gross, and the darkly humorous. Christensenís mix-and-match approach to genre anticipates gothic horror, documentary re-creation, and the essay film, making for an experience unlike anything else in the history of cinema.


PICTURE

Upgrading their previous DVD edition, The Criterion Collection presents Benjamin Christensenís Hšxan on Blu-ray, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This edition makes use of a new 2K restoration performed in 2016 by Svensk Filmindustri, which was scanned from a 35mm duplicate negative. Surprisingly the presentation is not interlaced, as I would have figured there would have been frame-rate issues (the DVD was adjusted to 20-freames-per-second) but the film has been encoded progressively at 1080p/24hz.

Iím not sure how the frame-rate has been adjusted here as the notes donít get into this but other than a handful of minor trailing effects when there is a quick movement, I didnít notice any problems. In all other areas, though, this high-definition presentation improves dramatically over the artifact-laced DVD presentation. This digital presentation is substantially cleaner, with all of the jagged edges, edge-enhancement, macroblocking, and noise all gone, delivering a more natural looking photographic image, which renders the grain beautifully. Despite all of the problems the DVD had it actually did a remarkable job when it came to rendering details, but the image here is far sharper, and the intricacies of the settings and costumes are far more astounding here.

Also impressive is just how thorough the restoration work has been. The DVD still showcased a lot of damage but a majority of that has been wiped away here, with only the finer scratches, bits of dirt, and more severe issues remaining, like heavy tram lines and splices. Outside of that most of the bigger marks and bits of dirt are now gone. The film has also been re-tinted, which Iím thankful for. The old DVD tinted night time scenes and the last portion of the film blue, and every other sequence red, with the latter being an obnoxious aspect of that presentation. The Hell sequences here are still red, but most day time shots (and that last section of the film) are now a sepia, while most nighttime sequences are blue. The digitally created intertitles are also tinted blue now. The restoration notes indicate the tinting was based on instructions left by Christensen.

In all itís a significant upgrade, far sharper and far cleaner, and more importantly itís far more filmic than what the DVD offered. Itís a gorgeous looking presentation.

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

A silent film, Hšxan comes with a score that was created in 2001 by Gillian B. Anderson for Criterionís DVD edition, based on the 1922 score for the film. It was presented in 2.0 stereo and 5.0 surround on the DVD. Criterion only provides the 5.0 surround track here, presented in DTS-HD MA.

Itís a newer recording so it sounds clean and crisp, with decent range and fidelity. But itís not an overly showy score, keeping things fairly low key and subtly spreading the music between the 5 speakers (the track is lacking an LFE channel), but keeping most of the focus to the fronts. Again, itís not showy, but itís effective.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion carries over most of the material from their previous DVD, which includes the 1968 version of the film, Witchcraft Through the Ages, featuring a jazz score by Daniel Humair and narration by William S. Burroughs. This version runs a half-hour shorter than the main feature, running 76-minutes, significantly cutting down the opening and trimming a number of sequences along the way. The film is also black-and-white, dropping the coloured tinting. The beatnik undercurrent to this version, thanks to the score (which features Jean-Luc Ponty on violin) and Burroughsí monotone narration, makes this version a bit of a hoot but in all honesty itís more of a curio than much else.

The film is presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition but doesnít look much better than what was found on the DVD, and restoration work has not been done: itís still littered with a heavy amount of damage. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack also doesnít sound any different in comparison to what was on the DVD, still flat and tinny, but this only seems to serve Burroughsí narration.

The same audio commentary recorded for the DVD by Casper Tybjerg pops up again. Tybjerg starts things off by explaining the structure of the track, with him focusing on Christensen during the 16-minute ďintroductionĒ of the film, and then focusing on specific sequences and such throughout the rest. I appreciate the structure and this help Tybjerg cover a lot of material in an orderly and straight-forward fashion, though it admittedly does make the track a little stale and dry. But getting past that there is a lot here, with Tybjerg covering the filmís innovations (from various editing and filming techniques to how certain special effects were accomplished) and getting into the vast amount of sources behind sequences in the film. On top of all of this he gets into the various versions of the film (including the 1941 re-release) and touches on Christensenís career before and after. Despite me feeling the track can be maybe too academic, lacking any real sense of fun, it is loaded with a great amount of material around the film and its subject matter that still makes it incredibly rewarding.

The rest of the features start off with an 8-minute introduction Christensen that he filmed for the 1941 re-release of the film. It was mentioned in Tybjergís commentary that there were concerns around re-releasing a silent film in 1941 and it feels this intro is supposed to address that, by having Christensen explain how the film wouldnít work with talking.

BibliothŤque diabolique presents the artwork that appears during the opening of the film, providing history and context for them. It was put together by Tybjerg as a gallery for the DVD but it has been turned into a slideshow-like video feature here running 15-minutes. It uses the exact same format (background and layout) that the DVDís gallery did, and the images have been upscaled from that standard-definition feature. This is then followed by a short text note on the origins of the score.

Impressively Tybjerg was also able to dig up outtakes from the film, running under 5-minutes. There is some footage of the studios as well as footage of the cathedral that appears in the film, but most interesting is what appears to be test footage for the flying witches sequences, which Tybjerg goes over in the commentary.

Surprisingly the DVDís insert has been upgraded here to a booklet. Chris Fujiwara again provides an essay. The notes state this essay is an expanded version of what was found in the DVDís insert but it is, in fact, a complete rewrite by Fujiwara, who goes into more details about the filmís impact. Chloť Germaine Buckley then offers a new essay on witchcraft as it has been presented in film from Hšxan on, and then the booklet concludes with the same essay on the score written by Gillian B. Anderson.

Disappointingly Criterion didnít see fit to include any new features but this is still a well-rounded and satisfying special edition for the film.

8/10

CLOSING

Worth the upgrade, this Blu-ray ports most of the material over from the DVD edition while also providing a far sharper, more film-like digital presentation. Highly recommended.


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