Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Review: Haxan - Witchcraft through the Ages

Earlier this year I was very lucky in a raffle at the Gaia-Sol Convention when I won a copy of the DVD Häxan - Witchcraft Through the Ages.

Produced in 1922 by Swedish director Benjamin Christensen, Haxan was a silent movie about superstition in medieval times and the persecution of witches. The title translates as The Witches and the film was banned for many years because it was considered obscene.

The DVD actually contains two versions of the movie - the 1920s version with musical score and subtitles, and 1968 re-release with a voice-over by cult author William Burroughs.

I finally got around to watching Haxan last weekend and, with Halloween approaching, it seemed the ideal time to review it on A Bad Witch's Blog.

I didn't quite know what to expect when I started watching Haxan. Several pagan friends who had already seen it had raved about it. One had called it a documentary, another had said it was a docudrama, while a third described it as "a lurid film about witches getting tortured and burnt at the stake, but quite fun".

Having now watched it myself, I'd have to say that the film is hard to categorise. All three of those descriptions are valid, but none of them really do it justice. It is the kind of film you have to see for yourself and make your own mind up about.

Audiences at the preview in 1922 were outraged. There were protests - not just by religious groups but also by ordinary members of the public. The depictions of supposed satanic rituals, and torture, were considered shocking.

The film was re-released in 1941, when the director gained more respect for the movie. In 1968, the film gained further praise when a short version with its narration by William Boroughs was released. The DVD, which came out in 2007, brought to a new audience again.

But what do I think about it? I'll start by talking about the 1920s version.

The film is divided into chapters and the first is a straightforward documentary. It shows old illustrations with subtitles of the medieval view of the earth and the heavens, with the devil living at the centre of the earth and the world surrounded by spheres containing the planets, the angels and finally God. It says medieval people believed witches had made a unlawful pact with the devil. Those found guilty were burnt at the stake.

Other chapters show dramas unfold, with mounting horror. The first is little more than a saucy but grotesque tale in which a woman buys a love potion from a witch in order to seduce a wealthy priest. She returns three times to get stronger and stronger potions. The lights fade as she manages to drive her victim wild with desire.

In the next, a young woman accuses an poor old woman of using witchcraft to make her husband ill. The crone is carried off by the inquisition and tortured to confess. Realising her protestations of innocence are not believed, she gets her own back on her enemies by naming them as members of her coven. More and more innocent women are dragged to the inquisition cells, including the young widow. Harrowing and horrific scenes of methods used to gain confessions follow There are subtle persuasions, clever ploys and, of course, brutal torture. You know there is going to be no happy ending.

The final chapters are set in the era the movie was made - the 1920s. It talks about psychological problems that were thought to have been behind the witchcraze. But if you thought modern medicine was going to be an improvement, think again, as 2oth-century horror stories unfold of women diagnosed as suffering from hysteria being locked away in institutions where psychiatrists could try out all manner of horrific treatments in the name of science.

I found Haxan fascinating, yet gruelling. Although it still stands up pretty well as an introduction to medieval views on witchcraft, it is probably best enjoyed if you think of it as a horror movie in the same league as Nosferatu, also made in 1922. I love the surreal dream sequences as people imagine flying through the air on broomsticks, cavorting the devil and attending satanic rites. If you like old horror movies, this is great stuff.

The 1960s version has the advantage of a voice-over, which is good if you don't like watching sub-titles. Other differences are a new title sequence with some jazzy music that probably sounded really trendy in the 60s, but seems a bit cheesy today. I prefer the original, but either is worth watching.

Häxan - Witchcraft Through the Ages [1922] [DVD]


GB Steve said...

Haxan is no out of copyright and you can download a free copy here:

It doesn't have any sound although you could perhaps play along on your casio organ.

Badwitch said...

GB Steve - Thanks very much for that link.