[To help get you into the spooky spirit this October, the Daily Dead team thought it would be a great idea to spotlight some of our favorite witchcraft movies that just might cast a spell on you and make your Halloween season a "hexcellent" one!]
Happy spooky season, friends! I hope you’re enjoying all of the broomstick riding, devil’s book signing, cackling goodness from our retrospective series on witches thus far. For my go around, I’d like to take you all the way back to 1922, when Danish actor/screenwriter/director Benjamin Christensen created Häxan, a film that was already playing with cinematic formats. It presents itself as a documentary on witchcraft as it was understood in the Middle Ages, but blended into the film are dramatic reenactments that feature heavy doses of exploitation-style violence and titillation that led to the film being banned in the U.S. What’s particularly interesting, however, is that for a film made by a white dude in the beginning of the 20th century, it serves as a pretty severe indictment of the patriarchal philosophies that contributed to the witch hunts in the first place.
Christensen first got the idea to create a film about witchcraft after he stumbled on a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a manual of sorts written by Heinrich Kramer in 1487. The book served to provide inquisitors of the time with methods for identifying and indicting witches, which you’ll be stunned to learn don’t really hold water when held to pesky standards like logic and common sense. After reading the book, Christensen went on a tear through other literature on the topic to provide material for what would become Häxan two years later.
The film starts off as a sort of 1920s prototype for a PowerPoint presentation on medieval theology and demonology. Christensen weaves informational text with illustrations from source material of the day to set the stage for how people viewed the universe, with elaborate visuals used to portray the structure of the universe as it was imagined in the Middle Ages. Of course, it’s not all suns and angels, as Christensen segues into illustrations of various devils and demons with particular focus on various methods of torture that one might find in Hell. Such focus hints at the tantalizing nature of the film as Christensen seems to take delight in pointing out particularly gruesome details in the illustrations, including a mechanical representation of the underworld complete with demons stoking fires, dipping sinners into boiling pots, and gnawing on the souls of the damned.
Once Christensen has established medieval Europe as a land overflowing with demons, angels, and more demons, he transitions to short vignettes meant to reenact typical witchy activities of the time. There’s a decidedly playful tone to these segments, as if Christensen is inviting the audience to join him in marveling at how ridiculous it is for people to believe that any of this is real. It’s also an opportunity for Christensen to really start digging into the titillating and raunchy nature of the source material. Nude women are seduced by the devil during nightly clandestine visits. Witches line up to show the devil respect by literally kissing his ass (did I mention that Christensen himself plays Satan?). One segment even features a couple of particularly sassy old witches urinating in buckets to toss at the door of a local they felt had wronged them (damned if I know what effect this spell was supposed to have beyond making the guy’s door smell like pee).
It should be noted, however, that none of the supposedly demonic activity is actually that harmful. Most of the spells cast in these vignettes focus on petty revenge, making a quick buck, or garnering someone’s romantic attention. Plus, in one such segment Christensen takes an opportunity to poke fun at the patriarchal hierarchy of the day. When a woman visits her local witch to pay for a love spell, we find out that she’s seeking the affections of her local clergyman, who we meet as he’s literally tearing into an unidentifiable hunk of meat and getting more booze on his robe than in his mouth.
Christensen’s indictment of the witch hunts takes a scathing turn, as his focus shifts from the witches themselves to the exclusively male inquisitors responsible for identifying and pulling confessions from alleged witches. When a local man turns ill, suspicions quickly turn to accusations as the man’s wife points a finger at the local weaver, who is perhaps the oldest, most impoverished woman I’ve seen committed to celluloid. As the inquisitors interrogate this poor woman, Christensen pays special attention to the “tools” they use to coerce confessions from the accused. Again, we’re in exploitation territory here as Christensen’s approach seems intended to shock as much as it is to educate.
The point still stands, however, that it’s only under extreme duress that the weaver begins confessing and pointing fingers at other women in the community, many of whom are women who made life difficult for her in the past. It’s also important to note that these confessions are dramatized in some of the most visually stunning sequences of the whole film, with all manner of surprisingly sophisticated visual effects used to show witches plying their trade. The set designs and makeup are gorgeous, and everything culminates into a swelling depiction of witches flying through the sky.
Christensen keeps a level of dark humor, as the reaction shot of the inquisitors at the end of the weaver’s confession got the biggest laugh of the film in the theater where I saw it. But this humor does little to hide Christensen’s condemnation of the men who lead the inquisitions, as he points out that death and misery followed them from town to town.
What’s particularly surprising, however, is that Christensen doesn’t pretend that everything is hunky dory for women in his day, either. His final segment explores the mental illnesses that may have been mistaken for witchcraft in the Middle Ages while also admitting that some of the so-called treatments of the day (such as ice-cold showers) aren’t exactly humane.
Now, I won’t pretend that Christensen is a saint. One can’t help but notice that the actresses are the only ones to get nude in the film, and the film gives off the vibe of a condescending, pat-women-on-the-head approach of the newly woke man who thinks he’s going to save all of those hysterical females with his genius film. That said, Christensen does make some pretty bold statements about gender politics through a film that is both visually stunning and dramatically compelling, making for a pretty satisfying witch’s brew.