When I am asked why I am going through this 1001 movies-you-must-see-before-you-die list of movies my usual reply is that I get to see a lot of movies I would not otherwise have seen. That is certainly the case with Häxan. This must be one of the more bizarre movies on the list. Actually I am not sure it counts as a movie. It is somewhere between a lecture, a documentary and a horror movie.
The director is the narrator of this lecture on witchcraft. He takes us through the medieval perception of the universe and the pervasiveness of the belief that the devil is among us and behind everything evil. We are shown devil worship rituals enacted and witches in action. The longest part is about the inquisition hunting down the witches and how they killed a lot of innocent people in the process. We then see people who actually think they are doing witchcraft or are being possessed leading up to modern times where witchlike behavior is explained by the mysterious disease hysteria.
I imagine that the director and his crew have a real thing with witches and the entire goth element of it. While being camouflaged as a stern and humanistic lecture on “witchcraft through the ages” it is really their chance to really gorge on all things goth and dark and gruesome. I think they had a blast. It really seems like they had a lot of fun making all these devils and torture scenes and I laughed too at many of the scenes. The old woman stuffing food in her head with both hands is just so grotesque and ridiculous and I think it is actually intended. They want to show how ridiculous those accusations for witchcraft was and how hysteric and hypocrite the trials were. Also the parties of the witches actually look fun.
The monks in their enforced celibacy blame the devil and the witches when their thoughts and bodies betray them and take an almost sexual pleasure in hearing the “confessions” of the witch and a darker kind of pleasure in the pain they are inflicting on the poor women.
It is quite obvious that they are the real bad guys.
The first half is the strongest. The devils and witches are great; they obviously put a lot of effort into these scenes. The goth element is very strong and the acting decent. After the trial, which ends on an unhappy note (I really do not like it when they involve small children) and with a presentation of gory torture instruments, the pace drops and the last 40 minutes of so is back to the lecture style and the “excuse” to make the movie: to tell us that those accused of witchcraft is just the unfortunates of our society and that we should care for them rather than condemn them.
The version I saw comes with three different soundtracks and a version narrated by William Burroughs. The original soundtrack from the Danish premiere is a bit flat, but the industrial version works very well. There is just something with silents and industrial movies.
Häxan is not a matter of liking or not liking it. It is something to see because you will never have seen anything like it before.