Häxan (1922)

Haxan or Witchcraft Through The Ages is a Swedish silent film, that presents itself as a quasi-documentary, but left me feeling very uncomfortable, particularly in their presentation of the Inquisition, and their treatment of women they claimed were witches.

This is another one of the films from the very enjoyable 101 Horror Movies that I hadn’t seen yet, and another one that I very much enjoyed, except for the parts where people and the Church made me mad.

The film starts out fairly dry with title cards explaining the pictures illustrated through the first chapter of the film, showing devils in hell, and witches at feasts, worship, and sacrificing. It even includes a helpful pointer to show you exactly what they are talking about, and one can’t help but think of teachers tapping items on chalkboards with pointers and rulers to make their point.

As the film progresses, the director introduces as series of scenes or vignettes to better illustrate the fervor with which people began finger-pointing and accusations of witchcraft. All well and good, unless you’re looking at it with the eyes of the 21st century. Most of the people accused, and though the title cards do say women, men and children, they were always women in the vignettes, are almost stereotypes of the old hag character.

Which works for one of the scenes in which a maiden asks for a strong love potion to win the affections of a pious man of the church, and this old hag brews up something with cat feces and other fun items and says to pour into the man’s drink, who is very busy, pulling a Friar Tuck, gorging himself on meal after meal.

Which is going to allow me to jump forward a little bit with my largest complaint. The glee the Church characters seemed to take in persecuting the ‘witches’, and the luxury in which they seem to live (and I realize this didn’t apply to all the church, merely the top 1% or so – that does sound familiar), while the rest of the outside world, seemed to live rather poorly. Admittedly this is a film from the 20s, so that should be taken into account, but I was almost offended by this presentation, as very, extremely, one-sided. And it was obvious that the Christian side was the only right side.

One of the things I found interesting was the imagery of the demons, some predating Christian times, including a familiar face from The Exorcist, Pazuzu! I so a pic of his statue, and grinned slyly at the television, saying “I know you, you cheeky monkey!”

Before I go further, I should clarify, that I know this is a misrepresentation of a centuries old earth- and nature-based religion, wicca, that has been demonized by the Church and the West for too long.

And it was so much worse when the Inquisition came to town, as illustrated in one of the vignettes.

In the scene a young wife, who is tending her sick husband, believes that he must have been bewitched, because he would never fall so sick! This thought is timed with the arrival of an old beggar woman, Marie, who wanders the village looking for handouts.

After a brief conference with the two other women of the house, she runs to the monastery and, we’re told by a card that it is inappropriate for a woman to touch a neophyte monk/priest/friar, but this woman is pleading for her husband’s life and grabs him by the wrist, a move which comes back to haunt both of them in different ways.

Then it’s a witch hunt, with finger pointing, and an entire household being wiped out from accusations of witchcraft!

Because it didn’t matter if you were innocent, once someone pointed a finger at you, and proclaimed “WITCH!” you were guilty. And while I’m sure it wasn’t true for all members of the church, those portrayed in this film seems to take an inordinate measure of glee in the events, the accusation, the torture. If you admitted to the guilt, they would burn you at the stake, if you proclaimed your innocence, they would simply torture you until you finally gave in and admitted your guilt, just to make the pain stop, and then they would burn you at the stake, before rolling onto the next town.

One of the aspects I did like was the make-up and early sfx to create the demons and devils, and their suggestively wagging tongues.

The effects, considering the time the film was made, are really top-notch, and the makeup as seen in the charming gentleman in the pic here were quite good.

The film then leaps forward to the modern era (1922) and draws comparisons between the hysteria of women who were witches in the Middle Ages to women suffering from *ahem* hysteria in the modern-day, positing that we’ve advanced as a race to be able to see that, perhaps, they are one and the same. Let’s ignore the fact that wicca is an ancient female-empowering religion that is older than Christianity.

In that manner, the film is very sexist in its potrayal of women, it’s apparently fine for men to be lecherous, glutinous, lying and hypocritical, because it was expected of them, and they were in the Right, especially those in the church, or they could blame it on a woman, who had ‘bewitched’ them.

I believe this film could have been very frightening to those who viewed it when it had its first release, especially in its presentation of demons and devils. It would be frightening to see this world they had only heard about in fire & brimstone sermons put before them on the screen in stark black and white.

For me, it was an interesting journey back to the early 20th century, and though the film no longer holds any scares, it’s undeniable that it has an effect on one. And makes for yet another film, that I may have heard of but had never seen, and now, I’m glad I have. This book… 101 Horror Movies To See Before You Die has proven to be very enjoyable so far, and it’s a welcome addition to my book shelf.

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