I typically stick with reading recommendations here on the Grimoire, but after sharing my love for the film Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, I had such lovely responses from readers and thought we’d give it another go! I mentioned before that, having once upon a time worked in indie theaters, I’m a bit of a movie addict. I have long been a fan of gothic and folk horror, and I have a pretty solid collection of classic horror films. So obviously I was chuffed to recently discover Häxan, the 1922 silent horror film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen and released to US audiences in 1968 under the name “Witchcraft Through the Ages.”
Styled as an essay, the movie is divided into seven parts, blending history and fantasy to dizzying effect. With documentary-like elements, part one presents a Eurocentric history of “primitive” beliefs and practices, using gorgeous visuals and large scale models throughout. Early on, Christensen’s tone is academic, even authoritative—the first title card describes what we are about to see as “a cultural and historical presentation”—in a manner that pre-dates the “found footage” genre of horror by more than half a century. This documentary style quickly shifts in subsequent parts, however, instead treating viewers to fantastic depictions of Hell, Satan, a witches’ sabbath, etc. Indeed, I was deeply impressed with the practical effects of the era, and these segments are truly ahead of their time.
But that very-visible span of a century may in fact wear on some viewers. Segments that once seemed lurid, such as a woman using a love potion to seduce a monk or depictions of torture of those accused of witchcraft, likely won’t shock contemporary audiences. Additionally, mainstream aversion to silent films will likely alienate many contemporary viewers. Perhaps it’s partly because of my past work in a revival cinema that hosted a “silent and early talkie” film festival (shout out to CapitolFest!), but I struggle with watching a silent movie without live musical accompaniment. A score that was added at a later date doesn’t offer the same energy that you have in a theater with the swelling sound of an organ’s live accompaniment— it’s a much more immersive viewing experience. (Really, watching this on my laptop left a lot to be desired, but that mistake lies with me!)
Overall, while decidedly niche in its appeal, Häxan is a solidly entertaining and historically significant film that rewards viewers with its striking visuals.