Our continuing series on groundbreaking horror movie classics takes a look at one of the most controversial films (horror or otherwise) of its day, and the most expensive silent film ever made in its native Sweden. Just that info alone makes Häxan worth a closer look... but there's so much more to love about this beautiful, bizarre and eye-opening film than just its historical importance.
Danish actor/director Benjamin Christensen based his most ambitious project on the notorious book Malleus Mallefecarum (“The Witch Hammer”), a real-life manual written by Heinrich Kramer which the Inquisition used as a guide for investigating and prosecuting allegations of witchcraft. That book and the people who used it are partly responsible for the persecution, torture and death of thousands of innocent people (mostly women), and Christensen found it so unsettling that he set about revealing its horrible history to the world, in a way that would blur the lines between documentary and fiction – a technique that horror films still employ today.
The result is a film in four chapters: the first, examining the history of demons in world culture; the second, an examination of medieval superstitions which might have led to that era's fear of witches and demonic possession; the third detailing the horrors perpetrated on innocent people by agents of the Inquisition (and the all-too-often willing assistance by fear-stricken villagers, even the accused's family members); and the fourth, a look at how mental illness was once commonly confused with demonic possession, and how modern medicine (for 1922 at least) deals with the condition.
If you've overlooked Häxan because you're not really into silent films, you're missing an amazing experience. The film is overflowing with dark fairytale imagery, incredible makeup effects (especially Christensen himself in the role of a leering Lucifer) and shocking portrayals of torture that still make viewers cringe over 90 years later. It not only influenced psychedelic culture in the '60s (an early US theatrical release featured a modern jazz score and narration by Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs), but numerous Inquisition-themed films including Witchfinder General (starring Vincent Price, aka The Conqueror Worm), Michael Armstrong's controversial Mark of the Devil, and Jess Franco's The Bloody Judge (starring Christopher Lee). The film's title was also adopted by the production company behind The Blair Witch Project, which itself owes a huge debut to Christensen's vision.
Häxan has been released in many versions over the years (some cut for length, others censored, some just crappy prints), but today the best way to see it is on the Criterion DVD, which includes the restored full print as well as the shorter version with Burroughs' narration, a newly-recorded score mixed for Dolby 5.1, production notes, commentary by Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg, outtakes, and additional intro footage that Christensen created as a prologue to the feature. It's a must-have for any true fan of classic horror.