When I was a kid, there was this truly awful movie we had on Beta cassette: Ernest Scared Stupid. Yeah, Ernest. As in, Jim Varney. Anyway, I never liked the movie, but I loved the opening credit sequence. It was a montage of clips from various old, black and white public domain horror movies (with Ernest making wild-takes at all the monsters, but enough about that). I’d often just pop the tape in strictly for that three minute sequence, all because I liked that random smattering of weird, black and white horror images strung together and with little to no context.
But this isn’t a review of Ernest Scared Stupid (let’s pray I never review that one, either), this is a review of a movie that probably couldn’t be any more different: Häxan. Häxan is a Swedish silent documentary covering the history of witchcraft up to the modern age (“Häxan” meaning “witch”, after all). As a documentary, it isn’t the most thrilling thing to watch, and you’re going to find it even less so if you don’t have the patience for silent cinema, but it does have one thing going for it that I love: a random smattering of weird, black and white horror images strung together with minimal context.
See where I was going with that Ernest bullshit, now?
Haxan (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Director Benjamin Christensen takes you on a guided tour through the history of witchcraft, particularly in how ancient societies, in their ignorance, believed all sorts of ridiculous things. He begins with a photographic slideshow of classic interpretations of the Devil from many different cultures and eventually segues into the Dark Ages, focusing primarily on the Inquisition and its treatment of so-called “witches”. Dramatizations focus equally on elaborate depictions of what witches were believed to be capable of (flying on broomsticks to other lands where they dance around with animal-men and kiss the buttocks of Satan-himself) as well as how the Inquisition brutally solicited “confessions” from completely innocent individuals. Lastly, Christensen shows us how in the modern world, the term “bewitched” has been substituted with “hysterical” and how many people committed to clinics and asylums bear the traits that would have had them burned at the stake in the past.
As a documentary, Häxan tends to be at its best when it’s slathering on the special effects and the crazy bullshit, not so much when it’s delivering straight-up facts (we call this, “The History Channel Complex”). The imagery in Häxan is phenomenal stuff, reveling in the demonic nature of Black Sabbaths and the like, sparing no expense when it comes to monsters and various other Hellish horrors. But when the time comes to put the crayons away and crack open the textbook, Häxan can become something of a chore to get through.
The first chapter of the film (it’s segmented into chapters, by the way) is a slideshow of ancient depictions of the devil, equivocal monsters from non-Christian cultures and various looks at how ancient peoples viewed the universe. Being a silent film, every frame is followed by a descriptive text card rather than audible narration, and even though the artwork can be rather fascinating in its eerie nature, the opening to the film is pretty much a bore.
Even after it segues into dramatizations focusing on “this is what people actually thought witches could do”, the picture takes a while to giddy up. We’re treated to a scene where a chambermaid buys a potion of cat feces from a witch in order to spike a monk’s drink so he’ll have sex with her, and while this is pretty hilarious, it goes on and on and on.
But I’d like to give Christensen some credit and think he did it this way on purpose. Because the film doesn’t really kick into batshit crazy territory until Satan pops up from behind a monk’s bible altar and starts razzing his tongue. That’s when shit gets real. Next thing you know, witches by the hundred are flying over cities on broomsticks, cavorting and capering around bonfires with people in elaborate monster costumes, running through haunted palaces being chased by stop-motion creatures… and dressing up in hilarious giant cat costumes and pooping on church altars while two guys in pig costumes stand guard at the door. Oh Sweden.
This is where the “imagery” stuff I was talking about kicks in. Häxan may not be the most attractive and enthralling narrative in the world, but the visuals in it are positively amazing and very creepy in their grainy, tinted, silent film sort of way. If you can keep the kids awake, you can be sure this’ll give them nightmares.
At one hundred and four minutes, the film drones on a little long, particularly once it gets to the portion about the Inquisition torturing everybody. By then, the weirdos in monster costumes disappear and it’s just a bunch of fat people with silly haircuts stripping down old ladies and lashing the evil out of them. In this case, you might be more interested in the 1968 abridged, talky version of the film called Witchcraft through the Ages. It’s cut down to seventy-something minutes, features narration from William S. Burroughs and a lively jazz score that keeps the duller scenes from losing the audience. The DVD release from the Criterion Collection boasts both versions of the film, so I’d recommend picking that one up and seeing which you prefer.
Anyhow, as a documentary, Häxan is fairly primitive and that aspect alone isn’t going to invite very many repeat viewings. However, the visuals in the thing are astoundingly bizarre and perfect “ambience” fodder for Halloween parties, or if you need to get in the mood to write some Goth poetry or something. It’s better than Ernest Scared Stupid, anyway.