Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.” — Variety review, 1923
Häxan is the unique vision of writer-director-actor Benjamin Christensen. The narrative blends fact and fiction, taking the audience on a bawdy romp from ancient times to the early 20th century as it explores beliefs surrounding witches, demons and their assorted familiars.
Even in 1922, when the horror genre didn’t exist and filmmakers were still figuring out the rules of the new medium, Häxan was an oddity. As well as mixing documentary and fairy tale-telling, it’s peppered with gore, nudity and other highly explicit imagery (women lining up to kiss the Devil’s arse). Perhaps that’s why Christensen places his elaborate sequences of flying witches, demon births and out-of-control nuns within an ostensibly anthropological framework? He knew he wouldn’t get away with it otherwise.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Nosferatu is how close F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece came to being lost forever — like so many other movies of its era. Producers Prana-Film baldly plagiarized Bram Stoker’s Dracula, switching out names and locations and adding a few details, but essentially — and very obviously — lifting their narrative straight from the novel. Stoker’s widow, Florence, who relied on royalties for her income, was understandably furious and ordered all prints destroyed. Thankfully, copies survived.
There were several versions of this, dubbed ‘the first monster movie’, based on the Jewish legends about a clay man created by a magically-inclined rabbi. The 1915 version, purportedly about an antiques dealer who discovers a four centuries old golem and uses it as a personal servant, has been lost, but it was so successful that it generated a comedy about an actor in a golem suit (‘The Golem And The Dancing Girl’ made in 1917) and a prequel, made in 1920, which is the only one of the three films to survive.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often cited as the ‘granddaddy of modern horror films’. It takes the audience on an eerie journey through the mind of a madman. The conflict centers on a manipulative psychiatrist and the hero he has incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. Visually, the film offers a disturbing, skewed take on reality, heightened by the jagged asymmetry of the mise en scène. Although modern viewers might find the pace slow, with scenes consisting of long takes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a stylish, imaginative, and deeply uncanny text, a century after it was made.