Why documentary horror Häxan still terrifies, a century on



The film itself appropriately passed into cinematic folklore, with the failure of the rights holder to renew its copyright leading to it falling into the public domain, and ropey amateur cuts being subsequently assembled and released over the years. This culminated in a 1968 edit by British film director and horror expert Anthony Balch, collaborating with jazz musician Daniel Humair and incorporating a newly recorded voice-over by the author William Burroughs, which tied into the burgeoning late 1960s market for occult exploitation cinema. This edit, an early example of a remix film, was distributed by the Metro Pictures Corporation in the US and was no doubt a hit in the grindhouse cinemas of the period.

Christensen’s film, however, is more than simply a controversial or salacious work. It is a deeply innovative blueprint for so much horror that was to follow. Its sleight-of-hand mixing of the real and the fantastical became genuinely revolutionary. One hundred years since its initial domestic release, the film still plays a notable role in the history of horror. It wasn’t the only film to deal with supernatural folklore – it had various, more fictionalised European peers to a degree, from Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921) to Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920) – but the film’s form and blurring of scholarly realism with the fantastical gives it a more palpable, lingering dread. It became a kind of Necronomicon for occult and horror filmmakers in spite of being difficult to see; a rare unholy text which showed the screen possibilities of the occult.

Its psychological pathos

Christensen’s innovation doesn’t end in the horror scenes, but extends all the way to the closing chapters of the film, in which he offers a 20th-Century psychological interpretation of the strange occurrences he has depicted. It’s a choice that imbues the film with an almost unbearable sadness.

The final chapter of Häxan is largely constructed around the idea that esoteric behaviour had its roots in mental disorder, and was subsequently demonised due to sheer prejudice. Alongside that, the film also explores how the persecution of the innocent, including supposed “witches”, for unproven indiscretion, came about via weaponised accusation, designed to protect notions of piety. The dramatic potential for such accusations  later formed the basis of another horror sub-genre that included films such as Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Adrian Hoven’s Mark of the Devil (1970), all finding bloody purchase in the torture such accusations often demanded. Rather than treating such violence purely voyeuristically as those films sometimes did, however, Häxan provides genuine insight into how the misunderstanding of earthly, psychological issues resulted in a fearful response to human suffering, a perspective which saw psychic ailments as in communion with unholy realms.

Häxan wasn’t the first film to locate horror within the dark depths of the human psyche though it was certainly the most sympathetic. In fact, it seemed a regular component of European horror of the period. Two years before, German director Robert Wiene highlighted the same potential to beautiful effect in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, in which a fantastical, horror-inflected world is really the product of a troubled mind. Wiene’s other great horror of the period, The Hands of Orlac (1924), has a psychological question at its core, too; are the transplanted hands of a pianist really those of a murderer compelling him to commit further crime, or is the psychological trauma at losing his original pair driving him insane? Even Nosferatu’s chilling presence and ill-effects on the other characters of Murnau’s film are diagnosed throughout as an illness of the mind rather than a result of the supernatural.

Volk is still uncertain as to why Häxan isn’t discussed in quite the same league as these peers. “The very concept is so modern,” he concludes. “I can’t honestly see why it isn’t feted by film historians as much as [Carl T Dreyer’s] Vampyr [1931] or Nosferatu. I would certainly say it was the seminal faux-documentary that preceded all others. And the fact it was lost, then found, by horror aficionados puts it at the very vanguard of classic found-footage horror in the most literal sense.”



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