Haxan and Vampyr: Early Scandinavian Horror Film

Scandinavian horror has been always known as a stand-out atmospheric genre, which relies on peculiarities of Scandinavian culture and history. In 1922 Danish film director Benjamin Christensen made Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Witches), the film he has become known for and which received the status of the ‘cult’ one. Ten years later another famous Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer made his dark and provoking Vampyr (Vampire), which didn’t have success when it was released. Howver, after years, it became one of the most admired of Dreyer’s masterpieces. Both Häxan and Vampyr showed how different Scandinavian cinematic horror could be, and both of them went on to inspire many directors to devote their work to this mysterious, chilling film genre. Knowing that Vampyr was made in German/French co-operation, it still has the influence of its Scandinavian nature that Dreyer brought in as a director. Ten years lay apart between these two films, the genre has been evolving dramatically, but Häxan and Vampyr clearly can be seen as pioneers in many more horror films that would come later, not only in Scandinavia, but also in international cinema.

As it was mentioned before, Christensen’s film has been released in 1922, in the silent era of cinematography. Being inspired by ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (Hammer of the Witches, a treaty on the prosecution of witches written in 1486), Christensen got an impressive budget from Svensk Filmindustri in Sweden, refurbished the Astra Fillm Studio in Denmark (probably, trying to avoid the annoying attention of Swedish bosses) and then made a film that became the most expensive Scandinavian film in silent era.

Häxan is a very strange and original fusion of popular science films combined with the fiction narrative. If you are able to handle the first part, which tells you in a scholar form how witchcraft was organized through the ages (movingly showing you with a school pointer how demons push sinners into the boiler), you will be rewarded with a brave, sarcastic and dark performance which includes all the things we know about witches: sabbath, inquisition, tortures, innocent victims, crazy fanatics and many more.  An authentic material such as historical documents and antique engravings suddenly turn into a fictional reconstruction of the events that have been described. We can see different stories about witchcraft in medieval times, how the whole family was destroyed by accusations in sorcery, the confessions the victims make under the tortures are represented in a hallucination form of a demonic havoc. The devil himself looks very impressive, usually monsters look naïve and funny in silent era movies, but here the devil does look sinister and real, which makes the film even more impressive. Such a serious involvement of a medieval man into the fight with demon forces being described by Christensen as a strong belief that people had for this forces. Medieval people lived in the imaginary world of deadly fantasies, and witchcraft was a result of that. Basically, if you really want to fight with the devil, he will eventually appear on the edge of your bed.

The seventh chapter takes the viewer into a progressive twentieth century. The director introduces to us now days “witches” – women suffering from kleptomania and hysteria, whom not an inquisition fire, but a cool shower in the hospital may help.

In terms of a horror genre, Häxan probably won’t be able to scare the viewer today, and clearly this was not the purpose of this legendary film. It showed the games devil may play with people, and the mind games these people used to have. This film itself is a game with a viewer: messy, grandiose, full of dark humour and dark stories. The film has had a huge success over Sweden and Denmark, although it was banned in USA and censored in some countries as it had too much torture, sexual perversion and nudity for the time it was released.

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr didn’t win that acclaim when viewers first seen it. It is known, that the premiere of Vampyr has been delayed, as the UFA studio wanted to release the American Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) first. Comparing to these two movies, Vampyr looks very different in terms of ‘horror’ interpretation. Unfortunately, film was booed and claimed as a financial failure. But probably, it was just something completely new?

In Vampyr the plot is very simple – young man called Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg aka Julian West) arrives at an inn in a village Courtempierre. Everything there is very strange: shadows are walking around, hallucinations take place and one night an old man enters Allan’s room and leaves the envelope that says ‘To be opened upon my death’. Easy to guess, that the envelope will be opened and Allan will find that vampirism is going on in a village and he is the one, who can save innocent people from it.

The way Vampyr is made truly develops one of the most disturbing horror movies of all time. First, the nightmare is happening not at the sight of a viewer’s eye. For example, the woman Leone (Sybille Schmitz) has been attacked by a vampire is lying in bed, while her sister is watching Leone suffering from the curse. Suddenly, Leone’s face changes and truly horrifying transformation of face expression occurs: she looks somewhere up at the celling and smiles (although this hardly can be described as a smile, more than demonic grin). We can’t see what Leone is smiling at, but probably it is better for us, as even her sister is so terrified, that she has to leave the room.

Dreyer has found the best formula for chamber drama/thriller. Although in his interviews, he was saying that nothing in particular inspired the scenery of a film, can be seen a certain influence of one of his favourite painters Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), a Danish master who has been known for his lone figures in interiors and deserted rooms (see left). This is the perfect set for something mysterious that has a story that lies beneath the rigor interior.

As behind the walls something is happening, in Vampyr characters always look up, they try to hear the noises that may not even exist. For example, Allan hears barking dogs and a crying baby, and then finds out that there are none in the house. This episode can be compared to famous Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar’s short story La Puerta Condenada (The Condemned Door), where the main character hears a child wailing every night whilst he’s staying in a hotel, and that in the end turns out to be a hallucination. These disturbing secrets and mysteries behind the walls always form a great base for the chilling thriller.

Hallucinations and dreams are key factors in Dreyer’s film that form its style. As Edvin Kau wrote:

“This stylistic subtlety demonstrates a subjectivity ambiguity – which results in dizzying consequences when Gray not only dreams about himself, but dreams, that he dreams, that he sees himself dead. In several layers, we are presented with a play reminiscent of those dreams in which you not only participate as a player, but are also literally beside yourself as an observer. This aspect of Vampire is a play with built-in disavowals of the subject’s status as the centre of the narrative, as well as of the idea of the camera as a centre and an extended arm of an authoritative narrator who possesses the only correct view, which must be imparted to the audience in his and only his version…These non-centred and non-stable film universes, in which exploration and experimentation are key, testify to a modern experience that Dreyer has in common with more recent directors such as Antonioni, Bunuel, Godard, Fellini, Kubrick, Scorsese, Jarmusch and Lynch. No individual character and no fixed camera perspective can provide a secure centre”. 

– carldreyer.dk

 Overall, universes that these two remarkable films have made became the centre of inspiration for many directors and even nowadays they strike with their professionalism, camera work and a truly remarkable set of techniques that can impress even contemporary audience, amuse it, or put shivers down viewers’ spine.

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