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Our writers are expanding their horror horizons and discovering classic horror films — from the 1920s to the early ’80s — for the first time. Join us!

We may not be able to spend the summer traveling and exploring new lands, but we’re determined to find the bright side of isolation and social distancing. And fortunately, we still have the magic of cinema to take us places we’ve never been. We also have a great excuse to finally see many of the films on our “to be watched” list that we never had time for before.

To encourage more new horror discovery, I asked the Morbidly Beautiful writing staff to pick a film on their horror bucket list — something they’ve always wanted to see (or felt they should see) but never got around to seeing — and write about their movie watching adventure.

20 of our writers were up for the challenge, myself included, and we watched films ranging from the very early days of cinema to those of recent years. Our picks included films considered absolute horror essentials to modern cult classics and indie festival darlings.

In part one of this group article, 10 of our writers share their thoughts on films from the 1920s to the early ’80s, seen for the first time. Stay tuned for part two, where we explore films from the mid-’80s to the present. 

1. Haxan (1922)

Explored by The Angry Princess

A silent historical documentary from the early 1920s may not exactly sound like the most exciting cinematic adventure, but I was completely spellbound by writer/director Benjamin Christen’s masterpiece, Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages).

Based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a fascinating and horrifying study of the religious fear, paranoia, misunderstanding of mental illness, and misogyny that lead to the infamous witch hunts. Told in four parts, the film traces the history of the persecution of “witches”, from the primitive era to medieval times to then-modern times, when the idea of the “hysterical woman” first took hold. The film’s documentary style is dramatized with unsettling horror sequences.

Christensen pulls no punches in his thoughtful, historically accurate depiction of medieval torture and the suffering experienced by those accused of witchcraft. As a result, Häxan was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at the time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion.

Part earnest academic exploration, part dazzling visual spectacle, and part truly terrifying horror movie, it’s a film that manages to still feel eerily relevant 100 years later.

Häxan fluctuates between being wonderfully weird, even whimsical at times, while at other times shocking in its depiction of real life horror and man’s cruelty in the face of ignorance and fear.

Although the time of torturing and brutally murdering innocent people, mostly women, for suspected witchcraft may seem a very distant memory, there are frightening parallels to be found in modern times. I shuddered during the discussion of how young, beautiful women were often accused of witchcraft for the “crime” of inadvertently eliciting salacious thoughts in men; immediately reflecting on modern rape culture and society’s tendency to blame women for being victimized by men.

Häxan is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and now I fully understand why. It’s readily available to watch for free, and it’s a meaningful and deeply affecting experience you won’t soon forget.

In short, Häxan is utterly bewitching.

Where to Watch

The Criterion restoration of the 1922 film is available on HBO Max and available to rent on multiple streaming platforms. The film itself is public domain and can be viewed for free on YouTube. You can also watch the 1968 re-release on YouTube, which includes a narration by writer and Beat icon William S. Burroughs and a jazz score by Daniel Humair. This version also reduces Christen’s original 104-minute cut to a brisk 77 minutes, though the original feels like the kind of perfection that may be difficult to improve on.

2. The White Reindeer (1952)

Explored by Matthew DuPée

There’s something to be said about the starkness of windswept snowy expanses, especially those forbidden frozen hamlets found in the Scandinavian reaches of the Arctic Circle. Fascinating. Frightening. Visually stunning. My first cinematic experience with the Lappland region – a sparsely inhabited region encompassing northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and portions the Kola Peninsula of Russia – came after watching Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander’s yuletide fantasy opus, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).

Not long after, I discovered Finnish filmmaker and documentarian Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura), a fantasy-horror vampire film with a strong arthouse aesthetic originally released in 1952.

In short, Blomberg’s film is an unexpected masterpiece – a visually stunning black and white folkloric marvel depicting a Sámi legend of a shapeshifting witch who transforms into a rare, white reindeer before killing her male reindeer herder victims with a fanged bite to the jugular.

The story follows Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen), the daughter of a witch, who eventually marries a local reindeer herder named Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä). But Pirita grows frustrated and lonely as Aslak’s devotion to the reindeer herd results in long periods of his absence. Pirita seeks counsel from a local shaman who provides her a love potion to ease her woes, which backfires despite her sacrificing the first living creatures she sees (a white reindeer), and instead transforms her into a shapeshifter – human to white reindeer to vampiress.

Blomberg approaches the material with a master stroke, relying upon clever editing and an austere style intimately intertwined with the eerie score provided by composer Einar Englund.

Most of the film plays out like a silent era classic, with minimal dialogue and exquisitely composed shots capturing the power of Kuosmanen’s acting prowess.

The film is also anchored with meaningful feminist themes, portraying Pirita’s struggle with domestic responsibilities and isolation within a male-controlled culture centered around reindeer herding. Of course, the underlying theme of Pirita’s desire to satisfy her sexual appetite (as the white reindeer) in contrast to her culture’s conservative expectation to live a selfless, sexually unfulfilled existence is a powerful, timeless subtext.

Kuosmanen, who was married to Blomberg at the time of production, also co-wrote the film, which earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival (the only time that award was ever presented) and later won a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1956 during the film’s North American release. Thankfully, a 4K restoration of The White Reindeer was completed by the National Audio-visual Institute of Finland in 2017 and made available on Blu Ray and DVD by The Masters of Cinema Series.

The White Reindeer is a majestic, must see folkloric horror masterpiece that is truly mesmerizing.

Where to Watch