History of Horror: Haxan

Dir. Benjamin Christensen, Sweden/Denmark, 1922

Presented as a documentary on the history of witchcraft through the ages, Haxan is about as serious a study as Cannibal Holocaust is of South American customs. It’s a salacious, shockfest dressed up with a long introductory sequence about cosmology in antiquity; some medieval woodcuts and a final sequence that’s meant to make the audience reflect on how much we have really changed since the Dark Ages.

In fact, the main story is the accusation of witchery levelled at an old woman by the wife of a printer. While the moral of the story may be that witches are just the way the superstitious mind dealt with mental illness and deviancy, there’s no equivocation in Christensen’s story. The old woman is a member of a coven whose rancid hovel is hung with animal skeletons, where the rotting flesh of stolen corpses is used to create love potions and curses. A dead man’s finger is snapped from his stinking hand and dropped into a barrel for flavour. There are demons, of all shapes and sizes, from a vast, lumpen devil to a truly disturbing skittering goat-headed thing. Witches give birth to giant insects and reptiles. Pig-men and rat creatures dance, as if in some macabre Beatrix Potter story, with young women. Smeared with weird potions, the witches fly to their sabbat where babies are sacrificed to the devil, and they dance on the crucifix.

And though it’s less overt, sex plays a huge part in all of this. A love potion turns a corpulent churchman into a sex pest; a monk with impure thoughts strips and begs another to whip the sin out of him. Young women strip naked and meet shadowy figures in forests. Nuns go mad and cavort with devils. Witches are bared and tortured. There’s no subtlety here: everything is on display, drenched in steaming ochre tints.

Heavy on the portentous, quasi-academic intertitles, and eschewing any kind of narrative or plot for a series of strikingly grotesque scenes, Haxan can’t hold its own against Caligari or Nosferatu. But its real, unquestionable power is in the graphic images it puts onscreen. While you could argue for Caligari and Nosferatu as atmospheric terror films, Haxan is all-out, full-blooded horror.

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