Saturday, July 19, 2014

Noita palaa elämään (1952)

... aka: Resurrection of the Witch
... aka: Witch, The
... aka: Witch Returns to Life, The

Directed by:
Roland af Hällström

Archaeologist Hannu (Toivo Mäkelä) and his wife / assistant Greta (Hillevi Lagerstam) have received a government grant to do some excavating near a small Finnish village. While digging in the swamp lands they come across a skeleton with a large aspen stake driven through its chest. Because of the cold conditions, the find has been well-preserved through the centuries. The skeleton still has long black hair, there are enough clothing fragments to later reconstruct an entire dress and a small leather pouch around the neck still contains herbs and a talisman. Ignoring the "old wive's tales" from superstitious villagers, who've already warned that the plot of land is cursed and the skeleton is likely that of a woman executed three-hundred years earlier for practicing witchcraft, they remove the stake and take the skeleton back to the mansion where they're staying with wealthy Baron Hallberg (Aku Korhonen); a sleazy tyrant who doesn't quite have the best reputation in town himself. Due to the some uproar in the village, Hannu returns to the grave site later that night and finds a young, beautiful, naked woman lying in the grave. He picks her up and carries her back to the castle. The woman - who announces herself as Birgit (Mirja Mane) - is hungry, confused and disoriented... but that doesn't last for too long.

The bewitching beauty soon starts showing her true colors and easily manages to seduce all of the men staying in the castle; nearly driving everyone in the village insane in the process. Painter Kauko (Helge Herala) doesn't keep quiet about the crush he has on Greta (even in front of her husband), but his attentions soon begin to drift toward the pretty new visitor. The Baron's son Viekko (Sakari Jurkka) has been unable to find a girl in the area that his father has not gotten to first. You see, the village women have dubbed the old man a "perverted pig" because he has "spread his seeds all over" and forced himself upon nearly all of the women in the area. Now poor Viekko is afraid to court because he doesn't even know who may or may not be his sister! As a result, Viekko falls hardest of all for Birgit, figuring "Well if she's a bit out of her head, maybe she'll even like me." Birgit also sinks her claws into the married Hannu, driving his wife into the arms of the painter in the process. Ironically enough, the horny old Baron is the only one really able to resist her charms, simply because he's paranoid she's faking being a witch in order to get her hands on his money. He doesn't even care what she is really because to him "All women are witches."

Birgit laughs gleefully as she causes all kinds of problems for our protagonists. She bites Greta when she tries to touch her and bites Viekko's lip when he tries to kiss her. She disappears and reappears at will. She causes one farmer to chop another's leg up with a hoe. She makes a snake appear. She breaks a horse's leg simply by looking at it, makes another horse disappear and, when she tries to milk a cow, blood comes out. A bird lands even on her finger just like in some Disney cartoon. Every single time Birgit leaves the castle to frolic in the fields, a mob of angry townspeople are there to greet her armed with scythes, axes, hoes, spears and pitchforks and chase her around. Eventually, the resurrected witch feeds Viekko seeds of life and death from her pouch and attempts to make him burn down the mansion as a dedication of his love to her.

Plot-wise, this is rather ordinary, predictable fantasy-oriented material. It's extremely dialogue-heavy, the music is often laughably overbearing and overly-dramatic and the film attempts to throw us off at times by introducing the idea that Birgit may be a crazy village girl and not actually a witch, but that idea doesn't work at all since we've already seen and heard too much to believe otherwise. There's also a moral that's beaten over our heads in the least subtle way imaginable by having one character keep repeating: "We all have a beast inside us." And in case you somehow happened to miss it, the archaeologist character actually turns to face the camera and explains it to us once again at the very end. What actually sets this apart, aside from picturesque Finnish locations seldom seen in this genre, is how surprisingly frank and free this is when it comes to matters of sex. Compared to movies from nearly any other country made around the same time, this is startling in its bluntness, with character casually discussing and joking about sex and numerous sexual one-liners and double entendres. In fact, all of the characters seem quite obsessed with their various desires and relationships. When one character brings up artificial insemination, the Baron says "The traditional way is much more fun," but a village woman warns him "What you pork in the past will come oinking in the future." (Ha, I'm gonna have to remember that line.)

The Witch isn't just limited to sexual dialogue either. Lead actress Mane isn't one bit shy showing off what God gave her in numerous sequences seducing men, dancing with a sheer shawl or cavorting around outside completely naked, which certainly wasn't something commonly filmed in most other countries in the early 50s. These scenes made the film somewhat scandalous in its day. It also comes at no surprise that when this made it stateside, it was an "adult's only" release only shown in sleaze pits on the exploitation circuit. Dan Sonney's company Sonney Amusements - who also released such films as Striptease Girl and A Virgin in Hollywood - were the first to bite, giving this a U.S. theatrical release in 1954. Joseph Brenner Associates (The Bellboy and the Playgirls) gave it a whirl in 1957, too. One American ad promised audiences "Starling fantasy in naked reality!" Back in Finland, however, this was a film taken rather seriously and it won several major awards there. The locations, art direction, photography, acting, dialogue and atmosphere (lots of wind and fog) are all vastly superior to most of the no-budget amateur soft-core trash passing for erotica in American at the same time.

Along with Linnaisten vihreä kamari (1945) and THE WHITE REINDEER (1952), it was one of the first sound horror films produced in Finland and was based upon a 1947 play of the same name by Mika Waltari. Larry Buchanan's THE NAKED WITCH (1961) more or less copied this film's plot, as well as its poster art (having the nude witch shielded behind strategically-placed tree branches). On home video, there were VHS and DVD releases in Finland, but nowhere else to my knowledge.

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