The Horror Honeys: Witch Month: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

Witch Month: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

Looks like a flyer for a metal band, doesn't it?
A Witch Month Review by Guest Honey Sarah

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

Time for a history lesson. In 1486 a text was published called the Malleus Maleficarum, or to give it its more awesome German title Der Hexenhammer. It was something of a manual for medieval witch hunters and inquisitors. Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen found a copy in a Berlin book market and in September 1922, Häxan was released. Part documentary (Nanook of the North, considered the first documentary, was released a few months prior), part horror movie, even part early exploitation movie with its crazy nuns and its demon orgies, Häxan is an interesting chapter in silent film history that serves as Christensen’s examination of superstition surrounding ancient witch hunts and theorising the reasons for them.

Häxan is split into seven parts. A few of these are explanatory and have a format a little like a slideshow lecture, complete with a Pointy Stick of Learning. These bits cover a medieval map of the universe, drawings and diagrams of witchcraft and Hell, and a tour of an inquisitor’s range of torture devices, from spiked collars to thumbscrews that are displayed with a little too much glee by one actress. 

Is this what Black Phillip was talking about when he asked
if we wanted to taste butter?
Where the film really shines is in its re-enactment segments. We get to see witches peddling their wares to help women ensnare sexy sexy fat monks, Demons tempting women to serve them through various means including really aggressive butter-churning that I’m fairly certain is meant to be some kind of metaphor, a young girl condemned for tempting a monk to wicked thoughts (hooray for ye olde slut shaming), and the influence of the Devil causing chaos on a group of cloistered nuns. We even get a good old fashioned witch hunt narrative with an old weaver woman being brought in for questioning and her confessions of what goes on during a witches’ Sabbath. This is the big set piece of the film with nudity, dancing on crucifixes, cannibalism, and even a zombie horse. Needless to say the film was a little bit controversial on its release.

The special effects are what you’d expect from the silent film era, but are pretty well done; consisting of simple stop motion, playing the footage in reverse, and some very basic image overlay. It’s rough, but in a way that’s actually really charming. Also the make up for the various demons and creatures looks really good. It’s just great classic horror, on par with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu
The safeword is "damnation." 
The ultimate statement of Christensen’s film is that the various aspects of witchcraft were misunderstood symptoms of hysteria. As a vague theory, looking at undiagnosed mental illness or health problems as the origin of certain myths related to witch hunts isn’t necessarily bad. However when you specifically cite hysteria, basically the belief that a woman’s lady parts make them crazy sometimes, it boils the argument down to dismissing outdated sexist nonsense and replacing it with something that we now know is also sexist nonsense. Does it detract from how good the rest of the film is? Not at all. It’s more of a moment that’s interesting as a window to 1920s era thinking.  

As a piece of history in terms of both silent movies and horror movies, particularly with the imagery, Häxan is definitely worth  checking out and gets three innuendo-laden butter churnings out of five.

You can watch Häxan on YouTube!
Classic and Creepy