07 October 2022

52 for '22: HAXAN

MovieHaxan (1922)
Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

Hey! Happy 100 years of Haxan! I forget what got this on my radar. I think it may have been the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die book. It just sounded interesting to me, especially for such an old film, and hey - it's October! Time for something spooky. Nothing spookier than tracking the origins of witches and hell and the Devil and all kinds of fun.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I guess I did know what was up with this, but I sort of forgot. I wasn't exactly prepared for just how much of a documentary style this was going to take, but I had read the synopsis and knew pretty much what I was in for. Like witches, spooky, the whole thing. I was cautiously optimistic that it would be on the better side of bonkers and go for everything I hoped it would. It did.

How Was It?

First, to be clear, the first twenty minutes are literally a lot of reading. It's like this presentation about the history of witches and superstition, and then the movie continues on like that, except with extended dramatical re-enactments (that are all just fictional) that bring us all the way up to the present day of 1922.

The whole thing reminds me that this was so early on in filmmaking. We didn't really have set rules or structure yet so this thing just kind of does whatever it wants. Is it a horror film? Documentary? Mockumentary? I dunno, it just sort of is itself. It can be whatever it wants as the moment serves it. It even slides into animation at some point, with some impressive stop motion for 1922.

Its content feels radical at times. It basically postulates that people of the past were stupid and conflated natural feelings of anxiety, hysteria, and superstition with fear of the Devil, and then specifically focused that fear against women, poor women in particular. It's not wrong at all, but it is funny to see them still in a 1922 mindset that says, "These woman weren't possessed, they just had a touch of hysteria!" The film clearly isn't siding with doctors and clinicians who lock those suffering from substantial neurodivergent disorders away from society, but it'd be fun to continue to track this all the way forward to today to really realize that even the films Freudian, psychoanalytical take has become outdated.

There is also a lengthy bit about medieval torture, which yes, is as horrifying as that sounds. It is all very scientific and analytical, but also critical. At one point the director even admits to one of his assistants wanting to try the machine and how many fun confessions he got out of her. It's startling to realize that most of the apocrypha we associate with the occult and witches stemmed from random women confessing to made up rituals to get out of torture. That's why torture doesn't work, people!

I did enjoy that a lot of these rituals, as bogus as they actually are (I guess we knew that...), showed up in The VVitch (2015) like the ointment flying, midnight dances, and eating unchristened children. It's fun to realize how much homework Robert Eggers actually did. Or maybe he just watched Haxan.

I'm the devil I can do what I want! Whatever I got I'm gonna flaunt!

There are a few bits worth pointing out. First is when all the nuns go insane. And then there's the director, Benjamin Christensen himself as the Devil. He's got the tongue, the crazy eyes, the lurid attitude. It's iconic. I'm surprised we haven't seen more of this depiction find its way into pop culture, or maybe it has in its own subconscious way. But the demon masks in this film are so on point.

Haxan needs a remake, it's a good zone for that - there is such brilliant iconography on display here! But I'd kind of like it to retain its genuine documentary feel. We'd just screw this up. There isn't really much of a story to sink into, it could be fun as an anthology. Anyway, I liked it, it's definitely for some specific tastes, but I feel like I learned about witches and horror, and it was surprisingly feminist. Go Haxan!

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