If you’re throwing a Halloween party tonight or sometime this weekend, Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent masterpiece Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages is the perfect movie to play in the background.
Häxan is a spooky black, red, blue and white mix of documentary footage. It features animated sequences and dramatised fiction with pretty piano accompaniment and subtitles over scenes of nudity and torture, possessed nuns that writhe and stick out their tongues, frolicing, grave-robbing witches, and Christensen himself, who plays the Devil and harasses a bunch of monks. The possibilities for drunk narration are endless.
The costumes and special effects are pretty stellar for early 20th century cinema, too, and explains why it was the most expensive silent Scandinavian film ever made.
The Criterion Collection describes the film as “legendary," a “far from serious…witches’ brew of the scary, gross and darkly humorous” that explores “the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the century psychiatric patients.”
Providing a logical, scientific explanation—like mental illness—for a religious phenomenon was too much for some people, however. Upon release, Häxan's “scathing critique of Catholicism” saw 8000 Catholic women “storm the streets of Paris in protest,” reported the New Inquiry. The film was banned in the United States.
Christensen's scientific yet comic treatment of his subject matter makes Häxan almost a mockumentary, if not an early prototype of the genre. Take this possessed nun, for example:
There’s a shorter, 77-minute version that's narrated by William S. Burroughs. It goes under the simpler title, Witchcraft Through The Ages (1967) and features a jazz soundtrack that diminishes Christensen’s wit. As cool as the beat poet Burroughs is, the original is better. For a party, at least.