Häxan (Sweden, 1922)
I always like to try and fit one or two classics into any October Horror Movie Challenge, and they don’t get much more classic than Häxan (also known as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages). It’s a film I’ve heard plenty about over the years but never got around to until now. While I was tempted to seek out the version narrated by William S Burroughs, I’ve been advised that it’s better to start with the original.
Happily, the Old Films Revival Project recently restored Häxan. This new print is crisp and smooth, clearer than a lot of more modern films I’ve watched recently. Even better, the restored version is on YouTube, so click the link below if you want to learn the mysteries of medieval witchcraft, Swedish style.
After a primer about historical belief in evil spirits, we start the first of several chapters offering imaginative vignettes about witchcraft in medieval Europe. The first shows us a witch preparing a variety of potions, including a love tincture for a local woman, who she then attempts to lure to a Witches’ Sabbath. This is followed by the witch’s dreams, in which Satan tempts and torments her, offering her riches before snatching them away.
The next few chapters follow a witch trial. When a printer develops a mortal illness, his family suspects witchcraft. They accuse an old woman who was unlucky enough to visit their house begging for food. This woman is hauled away by the authorities and tortured. Unsurprisingly, she confesses to all manner of sinister activities, describing a Witches’ Sabbath in great detail. As a parting shot, she accuses every woman who has ever wronged her of being a fellow witch.
One of these accused is the printer’s wife. She, too, is arrested. The inquisitors trick her into a confession, promising freedom if she reveals the secret of making thunder. When she makes something up, this is enough to convict her, and she is sentenced to be burnt at the stake.
We wrap up with some thoughts on superstition. The narrator talks about how the accused were driven to confess through torture, and that the belief in witchcraft was “insanity”. Switching to the present day, we see a troubled young woman in the grip of mental illness, imagining nocturnal visits from doctors instead of the Devil, being driven to pyromania and petty theft. In medieval times, she might have been burnt as a witch. Happily, in the more enlightened age of 1922, we can put her actions down to female “hysteria”.
The first 15 minutes of Häxan feel like a PowerPoint presentation. The introductory talk is accompanied by still images taken from medieval texts. A few are brought to life in a way reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s animations from Monty Python. Happily, from part 2 onwards, Häxan turns into something more like an actual film.
The depictions of medieval European concepts of witchcraft are very much the highlight of Häxan. While much will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the time, the depiction of the Witches’ Sabbath is lively and strange. We see hideous demons cavorting in a graveyard as a witch prepares a “meal of toads and unchristened children”. This all looks like something out of Fantasia, as reimagined by Joel-Peter Witkin.
Some individual details are much stranger, however, from a witch making a healing potion from a hanged man’s hand to a pair of women cursing someone by throwing urine over his door. The weirdness reaches its apex as an accused witch recounts all the children she bore for the Devil, as we see her birthing a steady stream of adult-sized monstrosities.
While the old-timey visual effects keep this and similar scenes tame, there is more nudity and suggestiveness than you might expect from a film of this era. A few of the more risqué moments are watched over by a leering demon who enthusiastically pumps a butter churn between his legs. This is not a subtle film sometimes.
The inquisitors are also unusual, from their practice of divination by dropping molten lead into water to their insistence on searching the bodies of prisoners for “witch powder”. It almost feels normal when they move on to simple torture.
Häxan is genuinely odd. In some ways, it feels like a pseudo-documentary exploitation film from the ’60s, titillating us while pretending to educate. From the wanton excesses of the Witches’ Sabbath to the enthusiastic sadism of the inquisition, Häxan excites our senses. This sends a bit of a muddled message, condemning the horrors of witch hunting while clearly relishing them.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for the time, the narrator is pretty direct about identifying misogyny as the main driver of the witch panic. Unfortunately, his attempts to understand what led women to be identified as witches using the more enlightened attitudes of 1922 have not aged well. The narrator decides womanly hysteria is behind everything from demonic possession to shoplifting. “The hysterical woman is a mystery for us,” the narrator proclaims. Perhaps we can excuse such attitudes, however. Given that Häxan is a hundred years old, it’s as much a historical artefact now as the texts on witchcraft it dissects.
As entertainment, Häxan is a mixed bag. The opening lecture is a misstep, robbing the film of momentum even before it starts. Happily, things pick up steadily after this, bombarding us with startling and absurd images. And while the wrap-up is baffling and more than a little pompous, there is enough good stuff in between to engage.
Ultimately, whether or not you’ll enjoy Häxan will depend on what you’re looking to get from it. If you’re hoping for a straightforward horror film, even a dated one, you may be frustrated. But if you’re in the market for a strange piece of cinematic history filled with startling imagery, you’re in for a treat.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker/The Mutations (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!