Saturday, February 13, 2016

Vamp or Not? The Witch

I received an email from Ville in Finland with some suggestions of movies for the blog. I love getting emails like that, so many thanks Ville. One film mentioned, which I was particularly excited about, was the 1952 Roland af Hällström directed film, the Witch.

Now the films Ville mentioned were all described as vampiric and there certainly are vampiric elements to this but I thought I’d look at it under the auspices of a “Vamp or Not?” The film is called Noita Palaa Elämään in the original Finnish and means the Witch Returns to Life and according to IMDb it was remade as The Naked Witch. I looked at that as a “Vamp or Not?” and went “Not”.

One thing to note before I go into the film details, however, is whilst the Naked Witch was a rubbish film this was actually a nicely put together film. Out in a swamp area the wind is blowing hard, stirring the mists whilst an old man digs. He is helping the archaeologist Hannu (Toivo Mäkelä) who is on a Government sponsored dig with his wife Greta (Hillevi Lagerstam). As he digs the old man talks to another local and says that the place is evil.

the staked body
Greta takes an artefact to show Hannu when they are called back to the dig. The old man is trying to refill the hole, given what they have just uncovered. It is the body of a witch (we never clearly see the body as found) who was said to have been buried alive and staked with an aspen stake (that is remarkably well preserved) some 300 years before. Hannu pulls out the stake and suddenly everything is the fault of the witch – such as Greta falling into the dig, the wind picking up or the old man’s axe head coming loose and nearly hitting his compadre.

Mirja Mane as Birgit
The archaeologists are staying at the mansion of the local Baron (Aku Korhonen) and he is descended from the Baron 300 years before who took a “tax” of the pretty girls. When one, Birgit, refused him – it invoked his ire apparently, and it was she who was buried as the witch. This Baron was also known for having his way with the ladies, when he was younger, according to his affable son Veikko (Sakari Jurkka). Also in the mansion is an artist, working on the current Baron’s portrait, called Kauko (Helge Herala). Kauko knows the archaeologists and has a thing for Greta.

found naked in a grave
The swamp has preserved the body and so it is retrieved and taken to the cellar (this is a separate building with cellar area). She was wearing a bag of spells that is removed. Greta is out when a storm hits the area, and Hannu along with Kauko go to secure the dig site. They find a naked girl (Mirja Mane) lying in the grave area. They carry her back to the mansion and Hannu seems to vacillate between believing her to be the witch and not. Her words do not help, saying that her chest hurts (referencing the stake, of course) and asking about her bag (referring to the bag of spells that was taken). She gives her name as Birgit and, like the witch, she has long black hair.

Birgit and Veikko
Now I did wonder why they didn’t just check the cellar (one of the peasant women suggests that it had been hit by lightning and the witch had come to life). However it does become clear that Hannu’s thinking is that the spirit of the witch that has become manifest. Later, however, the body does appear to vanish when it is secretly reburied, increasing Hannu’s paranoia. As the film progresses it seems more and more likely that she is a witch – the film using some trick photography techniques. All of the young men seem to fall for her and fight over her – Hannu, at one point, is willing to give up Greta to be rescued from a sinkhole but not willing to give up Birgit.

she bites his lip
So is there anything vampiric about the witch – other than the aspen stake that was used to keep her in her grave? You might recall there was little in the Naked Witch beyond the actual stake. In this however Birgit does bite and draw blood – Kauko’s lip during a kiss and Hannu’s ear. On an occasion she makes a declaration about, “Blood, Blood of a strong young man. Blood” and says it again when she bites Hannu. This clearly give us a blood connection. We also get a moment where a horse is startled by her, rears and breaks its leg. Its reaction reminded me of the traditional Slavic means of detecting vampires, though whether it was referencing this or not is unknown. Not all animals have the same reaction and she was able to charm a bird to hand – though that would seem more witchy than anything.

composed like a silent film
As a film I did find it entertaining and quite beautifully shot at times. The composition of some of the shots was reminiscent of earlier silent movies. I was less keen on the soundtrack, which was far too bombastic at times. The subtext of the film was clearly about feminism – the sexually free, carefree girl was accused of being a witch and mentally ill. She became the object of desire but disturbed the natural order of things, upsetting the more traditional elements of the populous, and so had to be put back in her place. Mirja Mane helped push this subtext forward with her wonderfully expressive performance. The resolution of the film's story was disappointing, though I won’t spoil it. But… is it vamp?

Hannu with stake
I decided that the Naked Witch wasn’t and I stand by that decision as, whilst we had someone returned from the grave and the use of a stake, there was nothing else vampiric about the film. This film did have the witch staked to start with and Hannu certainly wants to do that again, at least at times. In this there is more. Birgit is a vamp (as in the Theda Bara type of vamp) and this fits nicely in with that silent film composition I mentioned. There is a desire for blood – this does not seem murderous, although we do not know whether it would sustain her either. The horse, as I mentioned, seems to detect her as a witch (and this fits into vampire lore too) – and is shot for its trouble. I would say this tips over to vampire as well as witch. I should also mention that she dances around in a chiffon robe at one point and fans of Jean Rollin will be aware that vampires and chiffon go together!

Definitely worth seeking out. The imdb page is here.

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