Haxan definitely realizes the Devil is in the details; quite literally as Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent masterpiece that attempts to document the origins of witchcraft and it’s propagation down through the ages.
After a lengthy history lesson on the mystical beliefs of years past, the film kicks into creative high-gear with a vignette (the film is comprised solely of these pieces instead of a traditional narrative) examining the ghoulish goings-on in a witch’s cottage; a fantastic piece of set design featuring effective use of contrasting warm and cool tints, as well as rich lighting that creates deep shadows where one can imagine evil forms lying coiled waiting to unleash all manner of mischief. Yet for all that sweet, sweet darkness we also get a streak of humor as we are witness to the outrageous results of the witch’s potions on a monk whom a woman lusts after.
Also in the segment we get grave-robbing (for science purposes forbidden by the church), dancing mice, and the downright horny adventures of ol’ Scratch (played by Christensen himself)… atypical Tuesday for yours cruelly!
Intricate costuming, stop-motion animation, and fever-dream imagery combine to make this entire section an absolute showstopper, and remains impressive even today.
Next up we get an examination of witch hunts in the Middle Ages during a lengthy segment mainly concerning an old woman accused of witchcraft by a dying man’s family (though the youth are not immune to the treatment as well)… which she of course admits to under torture.
While you may expect these proceedings to be dour… and they surely are, the sequences involving the Witch Sabbath are absolutely draw dropping and features a plethora of demons, devils, bloodletting, and surreal environments… and the scenes of witches flying over a Medieval town is absolutely amazing. Also, many women kiss Satan directly on the ass, which will surely play well to my demonic demographic!
Finally we are presented with the film’s most philosophically minded segment which postulates that witchcraft may have been the creation of mentally ill women (suffering from that hoary ol’ chestnut ‘hysteria’), and in modern times we are more sensitive to these diseases (though the treatment of such is just as barbaric at times as those that tried witches in ages past).
While united only by theme, the above vignettes nevertheless coalesce into a highly imaginative, visually arresting, and mesmerizing and surreal experience that should be on the top of every horror hounds “must see” list.
This being a Criterion release, you can rest assured that there are an unholy host of extras present. First up is an archival audio commentary courtesy of film scholar Casper Tybjerg which is academic in nature, yet fascinating and highly listenable, and covers not only the film’s production, but the themes that informed it’s creation.
Following that we get an archival (from 1941) introduction to the film by Christensen, the greatly truncated 1968 cut of the film (featuring a jaunty jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs of all people) which comes of exactly like a mondo documentary, a collection of images compiled by Tybjerg that showcases inspiration for Haxan, and a collection of outtakes detailing how some of the film’s effects were brought to life.
Featuring a nightmare tableau brought to vivid life with an irresistible blend of ingenuity and aesthetic splendor; Haxan is a real gem in the fright flick crown!