Man this movie is weeiiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrd.
I’d never heard of Häxan until I read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird. The narrator mentions the film along with others he describes as “fanciful and morbid fare.” He’s confronted with a film that unnerves him, and his nightmare journey begins, much like “Pickman’s Model,” “The Music Of Erich Zann,” and so on.
I had to track Häxan down.
Häxan is part historical overview (the English subtitle is Witchcraft Through The Ages), part dramatization. You might consider it creative nonfiction.
Lots of stills of medieval woodcuts, some Hieronymus Bosch, a little Goya, all depicting Witches’ Sabbaths, broom riding, spell casting, interrogation techniques. Fascinating if you’re a history, art, or religion buff, but lurid enough for genre folks.
The history is intertwined with some vignettes of witches making potions, cursing the locals, and consorting with devils. There’s a main storyline involving Anna, Brother John, and Maria The Weaver.
Jesper The Printer is struck with sudden dizziness. His family has the physician determine if Jesper is bewitched. The physician waves a ladle of molten lead over Jesper. He dumps the lead into a bucket of water. The shape of the lead indicates that Jesper is, indeed, a victim of an “atrocious bewitchment.”
Jesper’s sister-in-law, Anna, runs to the Inquisitors. She grabs young Brother John by the wrist and begs for help. After she is led away by an older monk, Brother John exclaims, “It felt like fire when the young maiden took my arm!”
Anna names Maria The Weaver, an old woman, as the culprit. Under torture, Maria (obviously) names names. Meanwhile, Brother John confesses to having sinful thoughts about Anna which in no way suggests Brother John is a letcherous little weasel. Obviously she’s tempting him which clearly means she’s a witch.
Ah misogyny and victim blaming. Good thing we’ve moved past that.
Brother John is flagellated but, hmm, not killed. What a shock. Anna is arrested, interrogated, tortured, and burned at the stake with probably half the women in the town.
Sure, benighted and patently stupid to us. On the other hand, mitch mcconnell and orange Julius Caesar.
Benjamin Christensen packs some strange, strange stuff into his 1922 film. For example, there are some truly creepy stop-action devils in one dream sequence (predating King Kong by eleven years). Jump cuts keep us from getting a good long look at the live action devils. The effect is unsettling.
One devil around 54 minutes particularly freaks me out. Yes, it’s an actor in a mask. Rationally I know this. But something about it unnerves me, no doubt from reading “Pickman’s Model” and the Kiernan story I mentioned. That’s how it all starts, right?
Not that Häxan is without its flaws. Once Brother John is struck by his desire for Anna, the results are exactly what we expect. Other quirks were obviously unforeseen. For instance, it’s a Swedish/Danish film.
Here’s a title card:
“Låt oss slå upp i mystikens historia och söka stava oss genom det gåtfulla kapitel som heter Häxan.”
“Let us look into the history of mysticism and try to explain the mysterious chapter known as the Witch.”
All well and good except a post-Holy Grail audience is thinking “mäni interesting furry animals including the majestik møøse.” Once you have that in your head, it’s difficult not to hear coconuts and see Jesper The Printer as Roger The Shrubber.
It’s worth pointing out that Terry Jones is a well-regarded medievalist. He’d know all about the witch-fear of the Middle Ages and at be least aware of if not familiar with Christensen’s source material. It’s not unthinkable for him to have seen Häxan.
If all this isn’t odd enough for you, the Criterion DVD has some interesting features including the 1968 re-release with a jazz score by Daniel Humair (featuring Jean-Luc Ponty) and narrated by William S. Burroughs.
Kind of spellbinding. Sörry.
2-3 on screen, all characters accused of witchcraft
(admittedly the least important aspect of the film
Unspecified number of executed townswomen