We’re officially starting this year’s 31 Days of Horror with Häxan, which is a silent horror film from writer / director Benjamin Christensen.
It’s an interesting movie because it’s sort of an enigma by seemingly being all things at once. It’s a documentary and history lesson about witchcraft but it’s also a fictional horror narrative with “reenactments” of the torture methods used on those found guilty of being witches. It’s both very tame and approachable, yet it also could never have been released in the US at the time it was made due to the sexuality, violence and nudity on display (even in Sweden, where it was made, film censors forced numerous cuts to it). It’s a critique of religion and the role it played in torturing innocent people, yet it seems to suggest that witches and demonic possessions are real. And it all feels outdated and yet ultra-modern at the same time.
So, how can a movie from 1922 be so many things at once? And is it any good?
I’ll answer the last part first: Yes, it is quite good, although it’s not particularly scary. And the pacing feels plodding, especially in the first chapter (yes, there are actual chapters in the film, with 7 in total) where we learn about the history of witches through a book on screen. And yes, that is intended to sound every bit as dull as I can make it. Being a silent film, the way we are told about this book is through titles on screen that seem to stay on FOREVER.
Eventually, it moves into the reenactment part and this is where the movie really comes to life. Christensen himself actually plays the devil in these scenes where witches dance around a campfire with demons, and must kiss the devil’s butt (literally). The makeup, lighting and effects are simply INCREDIBLE and light years ahead of anything made in the same time frame. The visuals alone make this a classic, as far as I’m concerned, and one of my favorites is of several witches flying across a nighttime sky.
Later, as we see religious officials putting witches on trial, the film shifts and begins to become more of a behind the scenes documentary, even showing some of the actor’s testing the torture devices out of curiosity. It’s the breaking of that fourth wall that felt unique to me, even nearly 100 years later. Christensen lets us know that we are watching a movie, even going so far as to point out objects with a pencil on screen. This technique is how I believe he was able to make such a strange movie that still works today, and on many different levels.
The more modern stuff (well, modern for 1922) feels a little flat, but it examines modern medicine and psychiatry and brings into question whether or not demonic possession is real, and whether that could account for some of our strange behavior now-a-days. Again, while interesting, it doesn’t quite have the impact that it should, and seems a bit disjointed from the rest of the film. Still, it’s all worth your time to at least check it out. I read somewhere that the film is public domain, so I’m sure you can find it on YouTube (legally).
Tomorrow, Kelley will be reviewing The Monster starring Lon Chaney, so be sure and check that out as we move through our 31 Days of Horror!!