the witch influences

With The Witch opening this week, we sat down with writer/director Robert Eggers to do something a little different. We asked him to name the three films that most influenced his tremendous new horror movie and we would discuss his work through the lens of what inspired him. In part one of this series, we talked about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And now, we delve into the director Benjamin Christensen‘s odd and frightening silent classic Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.

There really is no other film out there quite like Häxan, which blends the horror and documentary genres together in a big, boiling cauldron during an age when cinematic language was still being invented. Originally released in 1922, Benjamin Christensen’s examination of superstition and religious paranoia is educational and campy, enlightening and terrifying, old-fashioned and yet, somehow, ahead of its time.

And perhaps most importantly, it gets to have its cake and eat it too: it ultimately concludes that the persecution of “witches” was the result of a male-dominated society not understanding “female hysteria,” but it only gets to that point long after its indulges in extended sequences featuring Satantic rituals, monstrous demons, and depictions of Satan himself presiding over his frenzied followers. Häxan wants to explore how innocent women were tortured and coerced into admitting to literally dancing with the devil, but it also manages to create some of the most nightmarish images ever committed to film. It’s a bizarre experience, but certainly a memorable one.

Because Häxan is a documentary (although not a documentary as we would understand the term today), it takes its time getting to its extended scenes of horror. Its first few chapters are essentially a history lesson, showing off medieval artist’s depictions of witches at work while the the title cards fill in the details. The concluding chapters are similarly dry, jumping forward to the present day of the 1920s to explain how troubled women need help, not an inquisition. It’s progressive for its time, albeit a little condescending by modern standards, but these particular scenes are more interesting as pieces of history than as cinema.

And yet, the middle of Häxan is as compelling as any other silent horror film, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Phantom of the Opera as the finest examples of early genre filmmaking. To explore witch legends, Christensen throws us straight into them and his straightforward, classically composed depictions of some, well, really fucked up shit hit harder than most modern horror movies. The effects are crude by modern standards, but that’s their appeal and their power.  The practical effects and costumes have aged into the stuff of bad dreams, their unreality feeling like something torn out of a feverish sleep. You know it’s fake, but you can’t quite pinpoint how it’s fake. It’s so false that it triggers something in the back of your brain – maybe that is what a debauched and supernatural ritual in the middle of the woods would actually look like. How would you know otherwise? After all, witches as Christianity defines them don’t actually exist… right?

It’s easy to see how Häxan influenced The Witch (and every other witch-themed horror movie ever made). It’s a barebones, straightforward depiction of the Christian view of witchcraft, which means old hags and flying brooms and magical potions. This is the witch movie template – everything that followed had to provide its own twist on this material. In the case of The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers embraces this more traditional view rather than attempt to reinvent it and the result is a film that truly feels like a tale torn straight from another era.

Part two of my conversation with Eggers begins on the next page.

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