All commentary below by Dustin Acton (2006).
"The practice of witchcraft has plagued man on this planet since he first
used words." (William S. Burroughs)
Perhaps the holy grail of witch movies, this Swedish silent film was updated in the sixties with a hip jazz soundtrack and commentary by beat author William S. Burroughs. A bizarre mix of documentary and fiction, Haxan intersperses authentic medieval illustrations and engravings of witchcraft and demons with Hieronymous Bosch-like cinematic recreations to act them out.
After explaining the mindset of the Middle Ages through a series of illustrations, the film moves to a hovel where we find an old crone making a love potion for a maid out of body parts stolen from graves and cat shit (all set to a hep jazz beat, mind you). The maid gives the potion to an overweight clergyman, who becomes overcome with lust and ravages her. The same clergyman is later visited by Satan (played by the tongue-waggling director!), which is followed by Burrough's explanation that "such were the Middle Ages, the devil's deeds run rampant." We then see Satan seduce an old woman (we are told that Satan generally chooses old and poor women) by appearing to her in her sleep while apparently vigorously churning butter (a metaphor for masturbation?). The woman chases Satan, who is vigorously churning butter (a metaphor for masturbation?), and is led to the castle of Apalone (sp?) where Satan "gratifies his unspeakable desires." There the old crone discovers she is surrounded by gold coins which disappear when she attempts to gather them. She then discovers a room full of young beautiful people dancing, but they only laugh at her, and she wakes up back in her hovel.
The scene changes, and after a short lecture on the methods used to discover witches, we are thrust into a new segment, in which a group of women tell some clergymen that Marie, a beggar they find disgusting, is a witch. After a series of elaborate tortures in which Marie maintains her innocence, she finally gives in and claims that not only is she a witch, the women who have accused her are too. Thus, the film claims, many "witches" were not only the victims of hate, but also of revenge.
The film then begins to depict Marie's "confessions" beginning with the Sabbath, in which Marie and her accusers dance and frolic with a variety of demons. In a bizarre scene, albeit historically accurate, we also see Marie's accusers line up to kiss Satan's ass (this aspect of witchcraft has been ignored by modern lore, but can be seen in a number of medieval engravings). After Marie is killed, her accusers are forced to admit similar confessions, and Burroughs explains that "to understand clearly the confessions of the witches, take a look at the instruments of torture that were used. There's little doubt that anyone one of us would confess incredible things with the help of such arguments." After a further scene of mass hysteria in a nunnery, we are finally shown a series of depictions of psychiatric disorders, and told that witches were very likely people suffering from mental illness. While the psychiatry used definitely dates the film (I doubt any psychiatric would agree that these are realistic reenactments of hysteria), the film does successfully point out that the mental conditions we barely even understand today would have been even more misunderstood in the Middle Ages. As the film ends, Burroughs drolly states that, "The enigma of the devil remains, and will no doubt remain unsolved until the death of the last man ... or woman."
This is a truly great film, and though its explanations are perhaps dated, it's the strangely frenetic nature of the devil scenes which raise this film above the level of bizarre curio and into the realm of true art. Sadly, none of the mysterious director's other films (the majority of which also appear to be occult related) are available, and the attachment of William S. Burroughs is perhaps the only reason this film even still exists. Fortunately for us it does; as a film this nonlinear and bizarre could never be made in our modern era of commercial film making. It's just too weird.