The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2012 issue.


Mysticism/the supernatural has always been a tempting ground to thread when it comes to cinema (and not only cinema). There are dozens of films that deal with the occult: some of them are known, others more obscure, some of them choose to be true to some source, others are just fabrications. However, this aspect is not one of interest here, since we are not talking – in most of the cases – about works that document something. The films falling in the latter category are worth mentioning in order to draw a line between an academic (if such term makes sense here) perspective, one that presents a series of events in a detached manner assuming that the viewer is familiar with the ground, and a more artistic approach which subtracts or merely sketches all »familiar aspects« (rituals for instance) in favor of creating a compelling setup (so to speak) which works better with the casual viewer.

I am not going to debate about the presumed effect of some »occult« works, because I believe these effects are fabrications designed for people looking for sensational stories, nothing more. Nor am I going to discuss about rituals and other »real« sources, because this is not an article on witchcraft, neither it is an article on witchcraft in art. In itself, this is a contradiction in terms: either you have one, or the other. On the one hand, if you are filming a »successful« ritual, what you see is what you get, there is no need for the artist to do anything (art is supposed to at least transport the viewer or interpret reality). On the other hand, if you are making a film about – let’s say – a cursed house, you’ll be more focused in having your material compelling to the casual viewer, even if this means discarding most of the »standard ritualistic procedures«. In the  first case, you will either have a group of people viewing what they are already familiar with, or a group of people who are either uninterested or alienated by the material. Either way, I doubt that what they would experience would even remotely close to something related with what they are presented (mystical / occult are terms that are easily coined today to many works of art, but I doubt that these terms point to specific »procedures«).

Let’s consider the films of Kenneth Anger: the reason for which they work has nothing to do with the source material, but with the way the material is presented. If we are to take the imagery out of the equation, what we would be left with, would be completely useless. They work mostly because they are visually striking and vague enough to let the viewers furnish the space in their own way.

Another  worthwhile consideration is Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, the 1922 silent film about witchcraft, black magic and other related issues. Again, I found the mystical subtext in itself to be nearly of no interest, but what caught my attention was the overall atmosphere: it is a particular one, which can only find in silent films (or films that act like silent ones). First of all, silent films natively subtract something and they need to compensate what they subtract with something else – and here’s where the expressionism pays off: remember La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc? Don’t you think that it works best the way it is and it still is, even today, far more effective than other attempts on the same topic?. Another aspect of these particular silent films is the absence of colors, as it gives them a vague quality in addition to being in perfect tone with the topic. The occult and black&white/sepia: seems like they belong together, doesn’t it? Häxan shares many of these qualities – random fact: it was mostly shot during nighttime, which was unheard of at that time – and one of its editions has another interesting feature: William Burroughs as narrator.


Carl Theodore Dreyer‘s Vampyr swims pretty much in the same waters, the only difference being that Vampyr relies less on the story and focuses even more on the atmosphere, to the point where the whole movie feels like a dream.

So, having these three segments together, the question that emerges is: what is really a mystical film? Is it all about depicting so-called mystical experiences? I doubt it. First of all, because it is not like depicting, let’s say, a physical phenomenon, which can be observed, explained and so forth.  There is no standard truth to be found here: some people believe in supernatural forces, in the occult etc. – others don’t. Those who don’t will always find a rational explanation, or they will settle for the just-because-I-can’t-explain-it-doesn’t-mean-it-can’t-be-explained logic, while those who do believe in such things will more likely assume that the things we observe and explain rationally are actually a consequence of some invisible forces at play; but even if such things do exist, I doubt that they are so easily reachable to be explained in terms this simple or to be used in purposes this childish. This is why there is no real reliable source, there is no real academic angle, what is left are stories and, more exactly, a way these stories are told. In movies, this works better, because there is another catch: mysticism (I use this term because it is more generic) relies heavily on strong imagery and you don’t have to be an expert, not even to be familiar with the whole story, to figure this one out. Also, there is this oneiric feel through most of them. This is why silent films are such a fertile ground. Movies like Vampyr theoretically have nothing to do with occult processions or anything inhabiting the same neighborhood, but they are haunting, eerie and visually arresting.

Earlier, I mentioned films that are mimicking the silent ones. The opening act from Jodorowsky‘s Holy Mountain is such an example which, again, works best at its most vague and works worst at its most concrete (the whole part where planets are detailed starts as interesting, but ends up being achingly repetitive and exhausting). Of course, if we are to talk about this maybe the best candidate is the 1990′s Begotten by E. Elias Merhige, which creates its own (grotesque) mythology.

There are, of course other approaches, some of which I accidentally talked about on previous occasions (on films such as Rosemary’s Baby or Don’t look now), approaches that do not necessarily rely on gloomy dreamlike tones, but on having unfamiliar events depicted in a very familiar tone and placed on an equally familiar setup. Two early Peter Weir films, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave are such examples. Another one would be the above mentioned Rosemary’s Baby, where, except from a dream scene, everything is presented in a very mundane manner. We know what happens, we knew for quite a while and yet, before the ending scene, Polanski never throws rituals or even eerie-yet-powerful imagery at us. The film is compelling because we are witnessing such events fleshed out in a very convincing manner and at some point we realize that, if such things exist, they are more likely to happen the way they are depicted, than the way we got used to imagine them. The same can be said about the two Peter Weir films and Dreyer‘s Vredens Dag.

There is no way to fully cover this ground, especially since the most compelling scenes from such movies are far more related to sensory perception than they are to language. This having been said, it pretty much depends on what you prefer. Häxan is an interesting ride mostly because of the time it was released (to have a »documentary« on witchcraft that ambitious in the early 20s is quite something).

by Shade

photo | Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. 1922. Benjamin Christensen. Movie Still

Full article here.