It's hard to imagine two more different films featuring the devil than Häxan and the film I watched right before it, The Devil and Daniel Webster (Little Nicky and The Passion of the Christ?), but such is the life of a Criterion completist. Unlike The Devil and Daniel Webster, which is a fairly typical (if upmarket) Hollywood production, Häxan is one of the more interesting movies in the collection. Constructed more as an essay than a narrative film, this silent exploration of witchcraft through the last 1000 years is at once an intriguing use of film to advance an intellectual posture and a supremely pleasing recreation of supernatural moments as they were perceived in history.
Certainly the most entertaining element of the film is the presentation of Satan as a tongue-wagging prankster leading the innocent into the darkness. The devil pops up at the most opportune times, forcing women to do horrible things in the name of evil. The recreations here must have been shocking in 1922, despite the fact that the film implies that its modern era has overcome beliefs in a literal devil that oversees literal witches.
From a current-day perspective, the argument that hysteria is similar to a belief that one was possessed by the devil seems logical but somewhat antiquated - especially since the notion of hysteria itself has long gone out of fashion. Most obviously missing from the film is a feminist perspective on either "medical" movement, a much needed balance to an issue that was directly related to the role of women in society. Still, Häxan is one of the more interesting silent films I have seen, and I'm not surprised that it would amass quite a following among fans of the macabre.