Häxan (English title: The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages) is a 1922 Swedish/Danish silent horror feature film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen.
Based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. The film was made as a documentary but contains dramatized sequences that are comparable to horror films.
With Christensen’s meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and the lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish kronor.
Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion.
” …Häxan is a deeply rationalistic piece of humanism, exposing the horrors of superstition and hysteria rather than of witchcraft itself. Every scene of witchcraft here is carefully framed as a dream, a delusional hallucination, or the content of a false confession extracted under torture; and while we see body-snatching anatomists mistaken for sorcerers, women denounced in error (or malice) as witches, and repressed, neurotic monks and nuns convinced they are possessed by the Devil, the closest that the film comes to a ‘real’ witch is a crone (Pedersen) who concocts and dispenses obscure pharmaceutical philters and unguents – for money, of course.” Anton Bitel, Film4
” …it’s a wonderfully strange and engaging film” Brian W. Collins, Horror Movie a Day
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“Overall, it is an interesting piece of cinema history and I would recommend it as such, but it doesn’t really work as conventional movie due to the constant changes of narrative style and it doesn’t work as a documentary, because it spends too much time on just dramatically portraying various myths. Still, recommended for enthusiasts of cinema history, other than that it doesn’t offer much for a modern viewer.” Karlails Films
“The movie is a collage, but what holds it together is Christensen’s authorial presence, an innovative technique for its time and still uniquely effective. Though shifting suddenly between drama and direct address to the audience, he appears as a guiding hand that is learned, compassionate and humanistic.” David Christenson, Monsterzine.com
“Genre fans will certainly recognise imagery which has been copied endlessly through the years, and the film certainly stands as a great example of early, sensationalistic horror. Although it is a little slow moving in places, the film is ghoulishly captivating throughout and incredibly, despite its age it has certainly stood the test of time, remaining the definitive work on the subject and still being accessible enough to be enjoyed by modern viewers.” Beyond Hollywood
“Part earnest academic exercise in correlating ancient fears with misunderstandings about mental illness and part salacious horror movie, Haxan is a truly unique work that still holds the power to unnerve, even in today’s jaded era.” James Kendrick, 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die
Horror Films: The Pocket Essential by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blance – Pocket Essentials, UK, 2011