The Limit Has Finally Been Transgressed: An Appreciation of “Hour of the Wolf”

Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.

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Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.

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What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).

At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.

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Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.

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If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.

All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.

Sorry, Sweden.

Goddess out.

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Scary Silents: “The Phantom Carriage”

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Welcome to the second installment of my new “Scary Silents” series! In the last post, we watched the Swedish-Danish witchcraft classic Häxan, and today we’re continuing the Swede theme with the spooky 1921 drama The Phantom Carriage (known in Swedish as Körkarlen), directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. This is really a beautiful film, with innovative ghost effects for the day and a surprisingly modern narrative structure, and it was a major influence on Ingmar Bergman, no less. It’s not strictly a horror film, I suppose, more like a ghostly morality play, but close enough, I figure. Let the Phantom Phun begin! If you’d like to watch along, here you go:

 

We open on a deathbed, so you know right away we’re in tragic Swedish movie mode. Edit, a Salvation Army sister, is dying of galloping consumption, which I take to mean that the disease is pummeling her into submission with its terrible cloven hooves. She is attended by her mother and another sister who I guess is her friend. Everyone looks very dour, as you would in this situation. The dying Edit is bizarrely insistent that a man named David Holm be summoned to her side before she dies. The movie doesn’t tell us who this is, or what the relationship between him and Edit is, but the two women at the deathbed seem kinda cheesed off by her request. Mom even says she wants the dying girl all to herself (WTF, Mom) and not to go get the mystery guy, but Edit insists, so the friend toddles off to find the dude. Dying people are so bossy, you guys.

Friend first meets up with a male friend named Gustavsson, and sends him off to the bar to look for David Holm, because evidently everyone in town knows that David Holm is a raging drunk who rarely vacates his barstool. Then she goes to a shack which turns out to be Casa de Holm, and seems to waltz right in without knocking. There’s a miserable, exhausted-looking woman in there, presiding over two sleeping children. It comes to light that this is Mrs. Holm, and the friend brings her along to Edit’s place, presumably leaving the two children alone in the shack in the middle of the night, because Swedish kids scoff at your unneeded adult supervision. When they get back to Edit’s, the friend says that Gustavsson is out looking for David, but that meanwhile she has brought the chipper Mrs. Holm as a consolation prize. Mrs. Holm hovers over Edit’s bed with her hands clawing towards her face like she’s about to do some evil spell on her or suck out her soul through her nasal cavities, but Edit just says, “Poor Mrs. Holm!” and kisses her all over her sad, sad face, after which Mrs. Holm collapses on her chest and the ladies have a good Swedish cry. At this point I’ll admit that I have not the slightest inkling what in the Scandinavian Hëll is going on, but perhaps soon all will become clear.

Meanwhile, the perpetually schnockered David is sitting in a cemetery drinking with two of his grizzled buddies. He glances at the clock tower and sees that it’s twenty minutes to midnight, and exposits that it’s New Year’s Eve, a very significant night. He jokes that he hopes his drinking buddies aren’t afraid of ghosts, because y’know how annoyed dead people get when you sit over their graves drinking and don’t pour one on the ground for the homies. Then he begins telling a story (which is shown in flashback) about his friend Georges and the legend that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is cursed to drive Death’s carriage for a year and collect all the souls of the people who die subsequently. I’m not sure how this system would work with the different time zones and what not, but maybe Death has franchised out the whole carriage business and has many representatives collecting souls in varying locations, like a bunch of spectral middle managers. There are some effectively creepy scenes of a man in a hooded cloak driving his black carriage transparently through the streets. He stops before a house in which a pinched rich man with a striking resemblance to Peter Cushing sits at his desk and decides all this wealth and comfort is for the birds, man, before shooting himself with a teeny pistol. Phantom Carriage Driver ghosts through the door and sees the dead man on the floor, gives a take-this-job-and-shove-it sigh, and crouches down to bodily heft the man’s soul from out of his prone body, probably wondering if the man’s soul had been hitting the Häagen Dazs or something, because DAMN. There’s also a cool, evocative shot of the carriage moving through the ocean, picking up the deceased victim of an overturned boat that’s floating dejectedly in the waves. So then David’s back with his drinking buddies, and warning them that even if they were planning on it, no one better die tonight or they’ll be stuck driving the death carriage and no one wants that, right? Dying any other time is totally cool, tho.

I'll be by to pick you up. Soon.

I’ll be by to pick you up. Soon.

Then we’re back with Edit and her mom, and Edit is still being Miss Terminal Pesky-Pants about why David isn’t there yet. Why she needs to see this lush so urgently is anyone’s guess, but maybe she just wants one last whiff of stale whiskey breath filtered through a scraggly gray beard before she dies. I’m not gonna judge. In the next shot, Gustavsson spots the three drunketeers in the cemetery and tells David that Edit is dying, and hadn’t he better hasten along and see her? David’s all HA HA NOPE and Gustavsson gives him a “screw you too, dickbag” look before storming off. David’s friends are all NOT COOL BRO, YOU SHOULD GO and David’s all FUCK THAT HO, I GOT DRINKIN’ TO DO and then he points at the clock, which shows that it’s like two minutes to midnight. A scuffle ensues as the friends attempt to correct David’s douchehattery through violence, and predictably, David is killed when one of the friends gets a tad overzealous vis-a-vis busting a glass bottle across his fool head. Realizing their tragic overstepping of boundaries, they nope the fuck out of the cemetery, leaving David lying there in a pool of blood and liquor stank.

Right on cue, here comes the Phantom Carriage, and the driver is probably going all SWEET, I’M AUDI, HERE’S NEXT YEAR’S SUCKER, and David’s soul half-rises out of his body and you can just tell by his face that he’s all AWWWW SHIT. I have to say that the carriage does look pretty eerie and awesome, especially for 1921. The driver of the carriage, who of course is David’s friend Georges from the flashback story, pulls back his hood and David’s all DAAAAAAAAMN, I’M FUCKED and Georges is all BRO, THAT YOU? IMMA COME DOWN OFF THIS THING and he sits on a gravestone next to David and is all like, DUDE THIS SUCKS, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S YOU and David’s all I KNOW, RIGHT, WHAT ARE THE ODDS and then SO, YOU GONNA PUT ME IN YOUR CART OR WHAT and Georges is like BITCH, YOU KNOW BETTER THAN THAT, YOU’RE ON THE HOOK FOR THIS SHIT NOW. He also mentions that not only does David now have to pilot the death wagon, but oh yeah, also that there’s gonna be some Scrooge-type action where he’ll have to spend the next year reliving all the assholey shit he did throughout his life, so there’s another fun perk of the job. To this end, Georges says that he blames himself for David’s death, in a way, since he was the one that lured David into the drunken debauchery that saw him neglecting his family and generally turning into a useless garbage person.

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This is me. Judging you.

Georges shows a magic flashback of David when he was a younger man, all set with a promising career and a fetching wife who cooked yummy stews at picnics and adorable children who frolicked naked in lakes and picked wildflowers and did adorable Swedish kid things. I admit this scene kinda confused me, because at first I thought the older guy was supposed to be David, and that he had a son in his twenties or something, but then I guess the younger guy is supposed to be him. Right? Who’s the older guy, then? And why does his wife look old enough to be his mom? I don’t understand the Swedish family dynamic, apparently. Then the idyllic family picture fades out and there’s David and his drinking buddies sitting in the same field looking like hobos, laughing and drinking and smoking cigars and playing harmonicas, like you do. Then there’s David’s wife Anna in their ramshackle house, holding one of the kids and stirring a much less happy stew with her free hand, looking all FML. Teenage David staggers in drunk and starts shoving everybody around, like a tool. Oh wait, maybe this is David’s son, and David took him out and got him hammered, because then Anna picks up the little kids and goes outside, and there’s one of the drinking buddies in the street standing over a sloshed, passed-out motherfucker, who is presumably David. Anna’s all FUCK THIS SHIT and she stands there rolling her eyes so hard she can probably see her cerebral cortex. The kids look all pitiful, and stare at their dad with eyes that seem to be shooting shame-lasers.

Then it looks like David is in the pokey, and rightly so, I reckon. A guy in a tux and a French Foreign Legion lookin’ dude with an epic mustache look gravely at David, and then lead him out of his cell and show him into the cell next door, which contains David’s son, looking all tweaked out and undead. DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE, DAVID? DO YOU??? David is bugging out, and the tuxedo man keeps telling him shit, but I don’t know what it is, because for some reason, at this point, whoever did the English subtitles for the version I watched was all FUCK IT, YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, NON-SWEDISH SPEAKERS, so I guess now I can just make up my own dialogue. So David’s all, DAMN, THAT’S SOME CIRRHOSIS YOU GOT THERE, BOY, MY BAD and the son’s looking up at his dad all pleading and sweaty, and David’s all WELL, THAT’S ENOUGH REALITY FOR TODAY and goes back to his cell. The subtitles kinda come back, so I can say for sure that tuxedo man says SEE, DON’T YOU FEEL LIKE A SHITHEEL and David’s all YEAH, GOT ME RIGHT IN THE FEELS and then the subtitles abscond again, but it looks like David is making some kind of proclamation about getting his shit together, but because this is a flashback you know what a steaming pile all of that is.

David gets outta the hoosegow and goes skipping merrily back to his apartment, but the door is locked and no one answers his knocks. He grabs the key from under the mat and goes charging into the place, only to find that—shocker—Anna has taken off and left him. He has the audacity to look surprised about this development, for why would any woman in her right mind abandon such a prize husband? He goes to the neighbor and is all WHERE THE HELL DID MY FAMILY GO and the neighbor is like DUDE, ARE YOU RETARDED OR SOMETHING and then he’s gesticulating at the neighbor lady and she is giving him some super intense shade and just looking at him like she’d like to punch him right in the danglies. Then, to add insult to injury, another neighbor lady comes up and gestures to him like OH, IS THIS THE ASSHOLE and the first neighbor lady is like YOU KNOW IT, SISTER, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT and the power of their combined condescension drives him right back into his empty apartment, where he can still hear them laughing at him out in the hallway. And then, because he is a man, he’s all I THOUGHT I WOULD JUST COME BACK AND EVERYTHING WOULD BE PEACHY KEEN, FUCK ALL BITCHES FOREVER and then he goes to whine about it on some MRA forum somewhere (okay, not really). The ladies continue to laugh and laugh, and he’s all huffing and puffing and probably thinking I’LL SHOW EVERYONE, GODDAMMIT, I’M GONNA WIN THE GOLD MEDAL AT THE DRINKING OLYMPICS, THEN YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY, but all he does is throw his little parcel of stuff on the floor and take a swig of water out of the sink faucet. Go for the gusto, David.

Then we’re back with spirit-David and spirit-Georges on the gravestone. They talk for a long time, but there are no subtitles again, so I’m just gonna assume they’re discussing how the Swedish bikini team is looking this year. When the subtitles return, there’s another flashback, and I’m able to discern that Georges was the one who sent David to the Salvation Army station to get help for his drankin’ and general fucktardiness, and aha, here we see where the stories of David and Edit intersect. IT ALL MAKES SENSE TO ME NOW. There’s Edit, looking all spry before the consumption galloped on her, and there’s the friend from her bedside at the beginning of the movie, whose name is Maria I think. Fun fact: The Swedish word for Salvation Army Station is “slumstation,” so make of that what you will.

David leans on the doorbell, and the girls are reluctant to open the door because it’s really late at night and they’re there alone, but they finally do and David lurches drunkenly at them. Friend is all LET’S NOT LET THIS CREEP IN HERE but Edit is all COME IN, MY POOR CHILD, so in he staggers. They offer him food, but he’s all FUCK YOUR FOOD, BITCHES and they’re all BUT YOU CAME HERE, SO…? They then offer him a bed and he’s all K, I’LL TAKE THAT and falls into a stupor. Edit notices that his coat is ripped, so she goes to mend it, even though the friend is still kinda like WHY DID WE LET THIS SHITHEAD IN, I CAN’T EVEN. Edit prays for David, and stays up all night fixing his coat, and then we discover that the bum’s filthy, cootie-addled outerwear is what gave her the consumption that would eventually kill her. Fuckin’ David, man. Even his germs are assholes. When he wakes up the next morning, he notices that his coat is good as new, and for some reason is a total douchenozzle about it, tearing off all the pockets and buttons, all I HAD IT JUST THE WAY I WANTED IT, WHY YOU GO AND FUCK IT UP LIKE THAT. Classy. Edit, instead of bashing his face in with a shovel, is all zen about it and tells him that since she had prayed for him, she wants him to come back and visit on New Year’s Eve, perhaps to see if God has seen fit to straighten his stupid ass out. He’s all WHATEVS, I GOT YOUR GOD RIGHT HERE and makes his dickheady way off into the night.

Back at the gravestone, spirit-Georges is all SEE WHAT A FUCKER YOU WERE and spirit-David is like I’M NOT THAT BAD AM I and Georges is like HATE TO BREAK IT TO YOU, BRO, GET YOUR ASS UP ON THAT CARRIAGE SEAT and David’s all NUH UH, IMMA GO BACK IN MY BODY, WATCH THIS ACTION and his spirit lies back down in the corpse while Georges looks at him like YOU FUCKIN’ EEDJIT, YOU CAN’T DO THAT and puts his hood back on like I’M TOO OLD AND TOO DEAD FOR THIS BULLSHIT, MAN. David keeps trying to get out of it, and Georges is all like THEM’S THE RULES, and then spirit-David then gets all belligerent and throws down with spirit-Georges. GHOST FIGHT, Y’ALL. Georges ties him up with invisible string, because that’s how he rolls, and puts his trussed-up ass in the carriage, probably thinking I CAN’T BELIEVE I HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS SHIT ON MY LAST DAY ON THE JOB, FUCK THE AFTERLIFE SO HARD.

SO. HARD.

SO. HARD.

In the next part, Georges has brought the death carriage to Edit’s house and dragged David’s ghost ass inside. No one can see Georges except Edit, and she’s all like, WHUT, DEATH IS HERE ALREADY, THAT DOUCHEBAG DAVID HASN’T EVEN COME YET and ghost-David cowers on the floor, properly shamed. It doesn’t appear that Edit can see David, because she tells Death-Georges that she can’t face the Lawd until she knows what happened to the asshole (I think; the subtitles are spotty again). Death-Georges says he’ll grant her a reprieve, because I guess he can do that.

Then there’s another flashback to Edit in a bar trying to talk some sense into David, who is shockingly getting drunk with his friends once again. She shows him something on a piece of paper, which he crumples up with a sneer, even though she is still smiling into his stupid, horrible face. Then he throws the crumpled up paper at her, and smirks like he’s the funniest motherfucker ever. Edit then douses him with alcohol and sets him alight, coolly lighting a cigarette off his burning flesh while he screams in agony. Oh wait, that doesn’t happen. She just huffs off and finds her Salvation Army friend and they wander off. Then the wife of one of the other drinkers at David’s table comes in and tries to drag him off, and everyone in the bar is like OH SHIT, IT’S ON, and David tells him to stop being so pussywhipped and sit his ass down. Then the wife gets all up in David’s grill, accusing him of turning her husband into a bum, and then Edit comes over and tries to intervene again. The guy slumps his shoulders and leaves with his wife, and David laughs at him and pours another drink. The other drinking buddy is also receptive to Edit’s message, and he looks lovingly at her as she tries to persuade him to give up the demon drink and get his life sorted out. He takes one of her flyers, which is for a Salvation Army rally, and he’s totally gonna go, and David’s all like YEAH, GO AND GET SAVED, SUCKA, IMMA SIT HERE BY MYSELF AND BE THE MOST AWESOME DRUNK I CAN BE, and proceeds to do exactly that.

Cut to the rally, where turns out David has showed up after all, looking a tad sheepish. His drinking buddy goes up to the pulpit with Edit to pray and all that, and David laughs like hell at him because he can’t just be cool and supportive of his friend’s new lifestyle, oh no, he has to turn the fucknugget knob all the way up to eleven. David’s wife is also there, and she has a look on her face like I CANNOT BELIEVE I LET THAT ASSCLOWN TOUCH MY LADY PARTS, and all the other people in the meeting are yelling at David and telling him to pipe the fuck down. Edit marches straight back to where David is sitting and gives him a death glare. The party slowly breaks up, and we see that a man who is the spitting image of Charles Darwin is also in attendance, so good for him for evolving out of his alcoholism (I know, boooooo).

Before he leaves, David has to get that one last punch on his asshole card by accosting a clearly ill woman who is coughing pitifully against a wall. Edit comes up and tells him to knock it off, and David tells her that he’s leaving town. Edit says he can’t do that because she still wants to help him, although honestly all I’d like to help David do at this point is get crushed under the wheels of a bus. So then David fucks off, and his wife approaches Edit. The two women go off into a room to discuss what a useless turd her husband is. Anna’s all YUP, I LEFT HIS ASS and Edit seems all sad about this instead of being all YEAH, HIGH FIVE, GIRL. Edit’s all YOU NEED TO TAKE HIM BACK and Anna’s all WTF ARE YOU SMOKING, but then she relents under Edit’s do-gooder onslaught and agrees to saddle herself with David’s sorry ass again, though the look on her face is all PLEASE GOD KILL ME NOW. Edit arranges the meeting, and David comes into the room. Edit’s all SURPRISE, ANNA’S BACK and Anna’s all, UM, HI…? And Edit’s all IMMA LEAVE THESE TWO LOVEBIRDS ALONE, BOW CHICKA WOW.

Then comes the next part, where Edit is in bed and the friend is reading to her. So it looks like that consumption has galloped in at last, and perhaps Edit realizes now that no good deed goes unpunished…? But no, she’s still all Pollyanna about everything, and it’s a little infuriating. Next we see Anna sewing in the house and drunk-ass David coming home and kicking the door open and glaring at his wife like he’s gonna knock her the fuck out. He hovers creepily over his sleeping children and Anna’s all DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE and then he starts flicking their noses and coughing his consumption cooties all over them, because he is literally worse than Hitler. He takes his shiny-ass pants into the next room; meanwhile Anna locks him in there (HOORAY!), packs up the children and gets ready to bail. David breaks the door open with an axe, screaming HEEEEEEEERE’S JOHNNY (not really), and before he even gets all the way through, Anna has passed out on the floor, leaving her children at their father’s mercy. For some reason, David feels kinda bad about the fainting thing, and brings his wife some water. She wakes up and gives him a look like he’s some dogshit she scraped off her shoe. He’s all NOT SO EASY TO TAKE OFF THIS TIME, HO and she’s all WTF, WHEN ARE YOU JUST GONNA BE A PERSON.

So done.

So done.

And then we’re back in the present, with dying Edit telling Ghost-Georges that she never should have brought David and Anna back together, but that she loved David so much and just wanted to help him. David busts out of his ghost-restraints and approaches the bed. Edit sees him and is all YAY, YOU’RE HERE, SHAME ABOUT THE DEATH THO, and the last thing she does before she dies is to say that she releases him from his prison. Wait, does this mean he doesn’t have to drive the death-carriage now? How does that work? Is there a loophole we never got told about? And does Georges get fucked in the ass now vis-a-vis driving the carriage for another whole year? So many questions, you guys.

The next scene shows Georges and David on the carriage seat, and Georges is saying DUDE, IF I COULD TELL HUMANS ONE THING, YO and then there’s something about a New Year’s prayer asking God not to kill their asses until they’ve grown the fuck up. Which is something I can get behind. Georges then pulls the carriage up to Casa de Holm, and David’s all WTF NO ONE GONNA DIE HERE and Georges is all SHOWS WHAT YOU KNOW, DIPSHIT, and then they go in and see that Anna is all I AM SO DONE and is fixing to ice her kids before taking herself out of this vale of tears. Fuckin’ tragic, is what it is, and it’s all David’s fault. Ghost-David starts freaking, telling Georges to do something, but Georges is all NOPE, HANDS ARE TIED, BITCH, PLUS YOU GOTTA WATCH IT HAPPEN, SUCKS TO BE YOU. David continues his meltdown, wondering if he should pray to God or Jesus (both? Maybe throw Krishna and Ahura Mazda and Zeus in there too for good measure?), and then he’s all OH MAN, I WAS SUCH A PIECE OF SHIT and Georges and everyone watching is like, DUH, TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH.

And then, because this was getting too depressing even for the Swedish, it turns out that David wasn’t even dead after all! He wakes up on the gravestone and goes tear-assing back to his house in time to stop his wife from that whole murder-suicide thing she was so looking forward to. So it was all a dream, or something? David tells Anna that he was at Sister Edit’s bedside when she died and that he promised to be a good dude now, but Anna is all YOU SUCK, SISTER MARIA SAID YOU NEVER SHOWED UP, so I guess he did dream all of that. But then David starts to cry, and Anna is all MAYBE YOU’RE NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL and then David tries to start a pity party by saying that he wants to be good but no one believes him and that’s why he’s crying. And I’m all, are you for real? And even Anna is like, well, considering your past behavior, y’know, but I guess you’re really crying, so I’m convinced you’re not a fuckbucket anymore. The very last scene is of David doing that New Year’s prayer that Georges talked about, with his weeping wife’s head in his lap. So yay, I guess? I’m skeptical that this all worked out all right, to be honest. I need to see the sequel where David falls off the wagon yet again, gets killed for real when he’s run over by a carriage (because irony), then is sent to Hell to polish the Devil’s knob for all eternity. Meanwhile, Anna gets a makeover, moves to Tahiti with her kids, takes up watercolor painting and marries a sexy lesbian fan dancer who treats her like a queen and gives her lots of sex and money and diamonds and they live happily ever after. I WANT TO BELIEVE.

Well. I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather verbose deconstruction of The Phantom Carriage, and if you liked it, I hope you’ll keep a lookout for new movies in the series when I post them. Until next time, Goddess out.

I swear, this never gets old.

I swear, this never gets old.

 

First in a New Series: Scary Silents: “Häxan”

Since I’m always looking for ways to keep this blog as fresh as a livid corpse, I’ve lately been casting about for ideas on a new series to supplement my “Creepy Scenes” one (which will continue, don’t fret). Just two days ago, I had a moment of kismet when I ran across a Cracked article titled “9 Terrifying Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame,” and just like that, the fabled witchlight switched on in my head. So without further delay, I’d like to introduce a new series here on Goddess of Hellfire, “Scary Silents.”

I’ve always had a fascination with the very earliest days of cinema, particularly as it relates to horror film. There’s something so enthralling about the films that were made when the medium was brand new, when all the possibilities were first becoming apparent. There were limitations, sure, but oftentimes, limitations can be the spur to mad creativity, and that was certainly the case in many of the earliest movies in the horror genre. These films, many of them now nearing (or surpassing) a century old, have such a pleasingly otherworldly feel, with their shuddering camera work, their luminous black and white tableaus, and their broad theatricality. Watching the best of them, it’s easy to imagine that they seeped in from some other, creepier dimension, one of flickering lamplight and mystery. Obviously, some of the effects are crude by today’s standards, and much of the acting is necessarily exaggerated due to lack of spoken dialogue, but to me, that only contributes to their eerie charm. And some of them, particularly the non-American ones, contain some pretty shocking imagery for the time.

As is my wont, I’d like to discuss some of the slightly lesser-known films in the silent film oeuvre. Yes, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, and Un Chien Andalou are fantastic, but they already get a ton of ink and bandwidth, so I probably won’t discuss them here (although I may change my mind about that, who knows). I would like to focus mainly on excellent examples of the genre that perhaps haven’t been so widely seen and discussed.

To that end, in this first post I want to talk about the 1922 Swedish-Danish co-production Häxan, known in English as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages. If you’re curious, there was a Criterion Collection version that came out in 2001, or if you’re impatient like me, you can watch the whole thing (with English subtitles) right here:

The film is structured in four parts, and was actually conceived as a documentary. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen had done a two-year study of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, and sought to bring his knowledge to new audiences. For that reason, the first part of the film (comprising about fourteen minutes of runtime) is basically a short summary of both the history of witchcraft and the perceptions of Hell and the solar system common in the Middle Ages. This section of the film is illustrated with stills of woodcuts that will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval witch legends, which I would assume is most people reading this blog. Bunch of sickos, all of ya. *kisses*

Hey, there's a cockroach there, might wanna squash that.

Hey, there’s a cockroach there, might wanna squash that.

Anyway, it’s the second part where Häxan becomes more like a traditional film, with short vignettes reenacting various aspects of witchcraft in the medieval period, and then a longer story in the middle that dramatizes one particular case of an accused witch being brought before the Inquisition. This middle section is the best part, chock full of curses and flying ointments and torture and old crones mixing potions by moonlight from pieces of corpses pulled from the gallows, and anyone who’s read my novel Red Menace knows how much I love all this kind of old-school witchery stuff.

Damn, I think all the murderer's sweat boiled off.

Damn, I think all the murderer’s sweat boiled off.

About 15 minutes in, a witch pulls a grody corpse hand out of a pile of straw and pulls off a finger, sniffing it experimentally. Weird, but you do you, babe. She then pronounces that the thief’s corpse had been too long on the gallows, and that the old, stinky finger isn’t gonna be any good for the brew. She soldiers on, though, throwing frogs and snakes and other unidentifiable things into her pot.

A woman then comes to the witch for a concoction that will melt the heart of her beloved, a fat monk who is later revealed, in a shocking plot twist, to be one of the main Inquisitors. The witch makes a delicious potion of cat feces and dove hearts. But then the woman wants the stronger stuff, so the witch gives her a potion boiled with a male sparrow, which evidently makes it like EXTREME love potion. Also, as a kinda two-for-one deal, the witch gives the woman an ointment that will let her and the object of her affections fly through the air and make kissy-face among the clouds. There are some broadly comic moments as the woman imagines the porcine monk taking the potion and then chasing her around a table and out into the woods before macking the hell out of her.

Things get REALLY interesting in later vignettes when the Devil (played by the director himself) shows up and starts pulling all kinds of evil shenanigans. “The Devil is everywhere and takes all shapes,” a title card informs us after his scary ass has popped up in a monastery and begun screwing with the chubby monks therein.

Surprise, mothafucka!!!

Surprise, mothafucka!!!

There are some really lovely silhouette shots of a naked woman walking zombie-like across a moor after being called by the Devil. One of my favorite scenes included one where the Devil comes to the window of a sleeping couple and begins banging on the shutters to call the wife to him, going all GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE, HO with his big clawed hands. Delightful.

One particularly cool sequence occurs when the Devil summons his minion, a poor woman named Apelone, into her “dream castle” where he showers her with money and a sumptuous feast, then begins to claw his way through the wooden door. The stop-motion animation here is great, and the little Devil figure, with his creepy beaked face, is super well done. Very Lynchian, this part.

In the longest segment of the film, there is a family gathered around the bed of Martin, a printer who has suddenly fallen ill. One of the male relatives wafts a ladle of hot lead over the sick man, and then drops the lead into a bucket of cold water, since the shape the lead takes will determine whether the man’s illness was caused by witchcraft, obviously. The guy pulls the lead shape out and is all OH SHIT, Y’ALL, THAT’S A BEWITCHING ALL RIGHT, and the gathered women are like AWWWW, HELL NO. The printer’s wife, Anna, gives food to an old beggar woman who comes in, and the old woman stuffs gruel in her face like a pig and totally blows a snot rocket on the floor and also has the evil eye, so the lady calls in the Inquisition, yo, since this beggar woman is clearly the agent of the bewitchin’. Family members throw the old woman in a bag (with one of the older female relatives making a particularly amusing YEAH, GET HER!!! gesture) and take her away.

The next bit, we cut to the Inquisition in progress, where the ancient old woman (Maria the Weaver is her name) is getting her torture on while the gathered monks swig wine and harangue her to CONFESS, CONFESS! At first she denies any witchy doings, but then the pain is too much for her and she’s all OKAY, FINE, I BIRTHED THE DEVIL’S BABIES, YOU HAPPY NOW and yes, they are happy, because now Maria is gonna confess all kinds of scandalous shit that the monks get to listen to and write down for later, masturbatory perusal. Maria starts telling the monks about all the witchery, and there are extended flashback sequences of a sabbath. The scenes of the witches flying are pretty cool, I gotta say. There are more beautiful shots with the witches flying across the sky in the background while the silhouetted devil orgy goes on in the foreground. The imagery of the witches’ sabbath is really gorgeous and unsettling, especially the weird skeleton-horse thing that lopes into the frame at one point, and the potion that one of the witches drops a dead baby in. There’s dancing and some (tasteful) nudity, and ladies making out with demons and doing jigs all over a cross on the ground. The monks are listening to this raptly, all WTF THIS IS KINDA HOT YOU GUYS. Maria tells them about the Devil-butt-kissing ritual, and the monks laugh and laugh like twelve year old boys.

That's my fetish.

That’s my fetish.

Through some plot contrivance, the comely printer’s wife also ends up accused of witchcraft, because payback is a bitch. I think it happened because the youngest Inquisitor had the hots for her, so the other monks assumed she had bewitched him. For his sinful thoughts, the littlest Inquisitor gets a whippin’, and when the whippermonk stops, the younger guy is kinda like WHY DID YOU STOP I WAS TOTALLY INTO THAT. You know those monks are total freaks.

One of the monks tells Anna he will let her free if she shows him one of them there witchy spells, and I’m all DON’T DO IT, GIRL, IT’S A TRAP, even though of course she’s not really a witch and can’t do magic, so what the hell am I even saying. The monk then tells her that her baby will be alone in the world without her, and then the monks actually bring the baby to the prison to show her, because monks are just the worst. Meanwhile the other monks are listening in, waiting for her to do the spell for the first dude so they can later testify that she’s a sorceress for real. See? Trap. CALLED IT. So then she starts telling them how to make thunder out of the water, because y’know, baby and freedom, and then the main monk pokes his fat face through the window and is all like GOTCHA, GONNA BURN YOU ALIVE TOMORROW, LOL and Anna is all YOU MOTHERFUCKERS and starts beating on the one monk in the cell with her, as you would, so she gets hauled off too. Cut to all the monks packing up their shit and moving on to the next town, because their work here is done (that work being torturing the shit out of innocent women and getting their sadistic jollies, obviously).

The next chapter is kind of an overview of witch confessions, torture equipment, and so forth, and opens with a creepy image of a door flanked by two people wearing scary pig heads.

Furries were a known scourge of the Middle Ages.

Furries were a known scourge of the Middle Ages.

And then all these other people in scary animal heads come shuffling out of the door and to be honest it kinda freaked me out. This bit’s kinda uncomfortable, because even though they don’t show anyone getting tortured for real, they do show actual people in the contraptions and show how they worked with a very matter-of-fact, “like so” kinda vibe. “One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew,” the director says in a title card, and then there’s footage of a laughing young woman wearing the thing while the hand of someone off camera begins tightening it. And suddenly her laughing mouth starts looking more like YOOOOWWWWCCCCCHHHH!!! “I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute,” the next title card reads. Very droll, Mr. Director.

Then there’s a nun putting on a spiked belt as a weird sort of self-flagellation, then there’s a whole convent of nuns running around like lunatics. And then the Devil’s back, wagging his tongue at another nun.

No thanks, I use toilet paper, hurr hurr.

No thanks, I use toilet paper, hurr hurr.

The Devil reaches into a box and pulls out what looks like a big spiked dildo and hands it to the nun and she takes it from him, looking horrified, before the cut. In the next scene we see that it’s a knife, and I guess the Devil wants her to stab someone with it, but she’s all GET THEE BEHIND ME and flings the knife away, only to have the Devil pop up behind her and brain her with a club. This is kind of a weird movie, if you hadn’t noticed.

She gets up off the floor, all flummoxed, and the Devil cracks open the door and gestures to her, so she picks up the knife and zombies her way after him, lookin’ all pop-eyed and crazy. She goes to the altar and with the devil’s encouragement, pulls out one of them Jesus crackers and goes to stab it while Jesus appears all like NOOOO, DON’T DO IT, MY CHILD, but I guess she does because then all the other nuns file in and find her all zonked out and they look in her hand at the wafer and they’re all like SISTER CECELIA’S IN LEAGUE WITH THE DARK ONE, Y’ALL and the nuns freak out and scatter. Then Sister gets up and starts lurching toward them, and the Mother Superior is giving her a piece of her mind vis-a-vis consorting with evil, and the sister sticks her tongue out at the Mother. And then all the nuns start dancing around and laughing, because I guess the Devil got them too through the power of the nunly raspberry, and the Devil wags his tongue and happily surveys his handiwork. In the next scene, another nun kipes the baby Jesus statue off the altar and carries it to the Inquisitors and tells them they need to burn her at the stake tout suite because the Devil is making her do some bad shit. She then spits on the baby Jesus and screams that the Devil is RIGHT IN THE ROOM, YOU GUYS. Fade to black.

The last chapter is sort of from a modern perspective, with the director pointing out that poor old women were usually the innocent victims of these medieval wackos, and then enumerating all the ways a woman could “stand out” back then and get the fingers of the Inquisition pointed at her. Like here’s a woman with a hunchback, or who is blind in one eye, or otherwise looks kinda fucked up or diseased. And then the director says, via title card, that we shouldn’t think that the Devil is only consigned to the past, because the actress who played the old witch Maria in the film once told him that the Devil was real, and that she’d seen him at her bedside.

He called me out into the yard; apparently he had a new lawnmower he wanted me to look at.

He called me out into the yard; apparently he had a new lawnmower he wanted me to look at.

But he says that now we know that all of the so-called symptoms of witchcraft were simply physical or mental ailments, and he has an actress portray a few of these ailments as examples, including pyromania, sleepwalking, hysteria, and the like. It then goes into a discussion of witch’s marks, and shows a naked and prone woman on an altar with the devil’s claws touching her back in various places. Then there’s those Inquisitors, leering at a topless woman while poking at her for signs of those “insensitive” areas. Contrast that with the next scene, which shows a modern doctor poking at a woman’s back, understanding that such areas on the body are completely normal and merely a symptom of that good old feminine complaint of “hysteria.” (This WAS almost 100 years ago, y’all; they weren’t THAT modern.)

And then it’s kinda weird, because one of the doctors says something to the mother of the patient about “Y’know, it would be a shame if your daughter’s hysteria made her have a run-in with the police” (WTF) and then the title card says, “Poor little hysterical witch! In the Middle Ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.” I can’t really tell if the director was actually feeling pity with the women, or if he’s just being a sarcastic douche. That’s one of the downsides of silent movies, I guess; you can’t hear people’s tone of voice, and the text in silent movies doesn’t have emoticons.

Then, inexplicably, there’s a scene of a woman in a jewelry store totally pulling a klepto while the jeweler’s back is turned. So I guess that’s what the law thing was all about. The jeweler peeps in the ring box and is all HEY, THERE WAS ANOTHER RING HERE and the chick’s all I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN, WHAT ARE YOU ACCUSING ME OF, SIRRAH? Jeweler’s all, INTO MY OFFICE MISSY OR I’M CALLING THE FIVE-O, so she sheepishly goes into the office and hands over the ring she swiped. And then the jeweler’s all GIVE ME YOUR CARD IMMA CALL YOUR MOM even though the woman is like forty. The woman begs him not to contact her family, or else she will be “forcibly detained,” which doesn’t sound too good, and wait, weren’t there witches and devils and stuff just a few minutes ago? This is taking a turn into crazy town.

Anyway, she tells him she’s not well, and that her behavior is seemingly caused by something outside herself, and I suppose we’re just trying to draw parallels between the treatment of mentally ill women in the modern day as opposed to the days of the Iron Maiden, but it’s still a bit odd. And then the woman is like YEAH, I’M BROKEN, AND LOOK, HERE’S SOME OTHER SHIT I STOLE, I’M SO CRAZY, and probably showing your other pilferings to a guy you just tried to steal from isn’t the brightest idea, but she’s arguing for her life, you guys. Then she pulls out the pity card by saying that her husband died in the war and she hasn’t been the same since. And it totally works! See, we have compassion nowadays, not like those bloodthirsty medieval fuckers, and the jeweler lets her skate. I admit I actually did feel bad for her, so good on ya, jeweler guy.

At the very end, there’s a little recap of the medieval view on Hell and such, and the implication that it’s awesome we don’t really believe any of that silly shit anymore. He says there are no more witches on broomsticks, and then there’s a shot of a smiling woman piloting a biplane. YEAH, GIRL POWER! But wait, he says! Superstition is still rampant! There are still tarot readers and crystal ball gazers galore! We no longer burn the old and poor, but don’t the poor still suffer? Are we really that different? No, Mr. Director, we are not. Food for thought, my minions. Food for thought.

And because happy endings are not very Swedish and all, the final shot is of bodies burning alive at the stake, so that’s nice. I also enjoyed the ending title card that simply said, “SLUT” (which is Swedish for “end” or “out,” but don’t spoil my juvenile fun).

Until next time, Goddess slut. I mean out.

Slut.

HaxanPoster