Häxan (1922): Häx on, Häx off

Director: Benjamin Christensens
Genre: Documentary/Fantasy/Horror
Year of release: 1922
Country: Swedish/Danish
Runtime: Too damn long

Halloween is right around the corner, and the realization that I haven't published anything on this website is starting to gnaw away at my conscience. Mr. Pataki's been getting me more and more into horror, like an otaku slowing sucking a seemingly normal, slightly impressionable associate into Autonomous Angel Extra-Spicy Neko no Wan Wan Speciale Uber Deus +purasu+: Return of the Kakkoi Knight R2xdomo W. One of the ones he pushed on me some months ago was The VVitch, which I quite liked. 

Witches have long been a fixture of human superstition; the Salem witch trials are so infamous that I hardly feel the need to mention them (and yet their spirit is alive and well with Roger Goodell unjustly suspending Tom Brady for a year IT'S CALLED THE IDEAL GAS LAW YOU DISHONEST CHARLATAN). Witches are a little bit tricky as far as scaring people nowadays; whereas vampires, werewolves, Philadelphia sports fans, and various other monsters are immediately visually scary, witches have to rely on other methods to scare an audience. Ordinarily you might think that creative forms of magic would be the most effective, but it seems like that's not really the case in cinema - and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Let's not pretend that there's a surfeit of quality witch movies out there. The VVitch is one of the very best, and while I don't know that it's particularly scary, it engenders a sense of creeping dread better than the vast majority of American horror movies. Hocus Pocus is a (very overrated) comedy throughout, but the one part at the beginning that got me is when the witches just flash by someone's house and steal a child - that's a well-done scene. The Blair Witch Project is quite well done too, but it's all because of what you don't see, rather than what you do see (the less said about the sequel, the better). I can't pretend like the Wicked Witch of the West scared me in The Wizard of Oz, but she was a worthy antagonist. The only other witch movie I can think of is Teen Witch. Remember Teen Witch?

Me neither.

I'm no sociologist, but all the data I can find leads me to believe that the most effective witch movies work best in presenting witches as masters over the unknown, rather than using spooky spells to turn an eye of a newt into a poisonous artichoke. Keep them in the shadows, show rather than tell, and portray them as outside the realm of human comprehension. 

The subject of the review does none of the above. 

Häxan is a silent movie, presented largely as a documentary of man's belief in witches and various ghastly supernatural entities, that sets out to prove that yes, indeed, man has always been afraid of witches and I'm a complete dunce for believing otherwise. The fact that it was released nearly a century ago is significant, mostly because it came out back when people were more susceptible to belief in inane bullshit (he said, knowing full well that one in five Americans believes in astrology), but also because it was one of the very first horror movies and was presented without the usual monster conceit that was so much more common back then (and really perfected by Universal about a decade later). Regrettably, this style was not exactly influential in the world of film (the closest comparison would probably be the found footage genre, like Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity), largely because it was banned in the United States for its graphic depictions of nudity, torture, and sexual perversion - you know, all the good bits.

Häxan is divided into four parts according to Wikipedia, and seven parts according to the version I watched. This unfortunately makes it nearly impossible to determine what's supposed to be a part of which particular scene, so I'm not going to split up this already embarrassingly short review. In fact, I have no particular desire to give a full length review (e.g., HERE THEY TALK ABOUT WITCHES. HERE THEY TALK ABOUT DEMONS. WATCH OUT FOR THE PART WHERE THEY TALK ABOUT SUPERSTITIONS.) because that would a) take some of the fun out of the viewer's hands and b) just not interest me as a writer. I think it would be far more fun to talk about whether this movie still works today. 

Something I pride myself on is my ability to look at something from the perspective of someone in another point in history. This may be why I consider old Chicago blues to be so impressive ("listen, they were actually playing their instruments back then!"). Hell, I can barely get to my local movie theater without a GPS and you had people operating in the 1940s without televisions. Basically what I'm saying is that I can sort of psychologically put myself in a certain period of time and kind of understand what people were into, what the limitations of the time period were, and what the influences of the past might have been. This isn't meant as some sort of humble brag, and certainly not some sort of X-Men type of temporal displacement super power. I'm just pretty good at deluding myself into thinking "Swell" is a totally acceptable exclamation when I'm watching a movie made in the 1940s.

I mention this because no matter how much I tell myself "Hey, it was made in the 1920s," and "Hey, it doesn't have very strong influences from previous films," and "Hey, it's a Scandinavian movie, for crying out loud," I simply cannot buy into what Häxan is selling. This is not so much to say that I don't believe in witches and demons and the devil (I've been to Philadelphia), but rather to say that the movie's cheap attempts to scare simply don't work. A lot of it is due to the effects; a silent horror movie will always be hamstrung by the fact that there's no scary sounds to play during a scare, so it has to rely on its score. Unfortunately, I was stuck with a piano score that either didn't sync up properly so simply wasn't right for what I was watching. It would play exciting music when discussing the ages when people thought the solar system circled the sun, and played light music while showing a bunch of demons in Hell.

Speaking of that scene in particular, the pop-up book appearance of the opening scenes is just cheesy, if not straight up precious. I feel so bad Mrs. Nicholson's Fifth Grade Class of Sterling Moore Elementary School, but the literal cardboard cut-out devils spanking the sinners of earth simply don't do a very good job at depicting Tartarus. Sorry about your diorama, sport, but the popsicle stick ghouls aren't effectively conveying a nightmarish hellscape. There are also these laughable moments with a stick being pointed at figures and diagrams, and it feels more like a grade school lecture than anything else. What hurts me more than anything else is that I can tell that a lot of time and effort went into these scenes, and I almost always appreciate concerted effort - especially when it's visible - but this just isn't convincing me of anything. I know this is probably the best they could do in Sweden in the early 20s, but it's just not good enough for my eyes. I've been spoiled by the special effects of Industrial Light & Magic, Doug Beswick, and Tom Savini.

This movie features witches kissing the devil's ass.

To its credit, the movie improves significantly after these scenes. It's a welcome change to see actual actors acting our scenes, even if this was 1920s acting (no offense to Renée Jeanne Falconetti). The focus here isn't really on witches, but mostly on what people thought witches were, how humanity has always feared the unknown, and the bizarre ways men have dealt with witches. I use the word "men" here deliberately; there's a very subtle undercurrent of misogyny shown in the way that it's always men accusing women of this, that, and the other thing - women are always at fault, never the men, who are the only saviors for our species. I can't say with full certainty whether that was intentional, but it's something I picked up on immediately and it stuck with me for the rest of the movie. 

Of course, the focus on witch hunts rather than witches leads itself to more discussion these days than sorcery. Sure, it's interesting to see all the ways paranoid priests used to put the screws to the suspects (sometimes literally), and for sure the movie always gives the audience something interesting to look at, but It's a shame that this didn't save us from McCarthyism, but that's what happens when you don't release your good foreign films in American theaters. We deserve whatever we get for not begging for a wide release of Kimi No Na Wa

This movie *twice* features witches kissing the devil's ass.

The most important thing caught in my craw upon finishing this too-long movie is: who is this for, nearly 100 years since its initial release? Who is firing up this Blu-Ray and inviting over friends? Are there really covens of Wiccans and Earthchildren lining up to watch this in special Halloween screenings at arthouse movie theaters? It feels like this is more for historians, people who are interested in how things were way back in the 1920s (let's face it, you're better off reading a book about witches, witch hunts, and witch trials if you want to get a credible historical perspective on the phenomena), but even then, there are much better movies from that time period. You're better off watching Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or Korkarlen. I wasn't entertained by Häxan, but maybe you will be if you're invested in the subject matter. I don't have a pithy, insightful comment at the end of this review, so enjoy something that made me laugh.