Life isn’t easy for witches. Sure, they have magical powers, live for hundreds of years, and can fly around on broomsticks — but it’s not all fun and games. Beyond the stinging social stigma attached to those who witch for a living, there’s also the constant threat of unruly villagers brandishing torches and pitchforks, hungry for a good old-fashioned witch-burning. It’s starkly amusing to recall that the archetypal witch caricature was born out of the cold-blooded, unlawful murder of innocent people, acts committed vainly in the name of religion. On film, the witch is prolific, with countless examples dating back to the dawn of the art form.
When examining the witch film genre, mounting similarities cannot be ignored. Some employ the witch in fairy tales, macabre bedtime stories intended to evoke fear and wonderment in equal measure. Others depict a society gone mad, fingers ever pointed at anyone different and who stands out from the crowd, spewing cowardly false accusations of black magic and evil misdeeds. Inevitably, human bodies are scorched on the pyre, some guilty, but the majority are tragically innocent — victims of ignorant prejudice and venomous persecution.
This week, Robert Eggers‘ must-see horror feature, The Witch, finally receives a much-deserved nationwide release. While its studio advertises it as the next big horror spectacular, positive early reviews (including our own) have compared The Witch to the works of Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell. The film is in good company, which inspired us to look back at the finest examples of cinematic witchcraft. Indeed, witches come in all shapes and sizes, as this list will confirm.
Check it out below, and suggest your own favorites in the comments.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen)
The entrancing and fascinating Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages continues to endure almost a century after its creation, mischievously detailing the terrors caused by the so-called “witches” of history. Haunted expressionist imagery pops and boils across the screen, complete with grotesque violence and flashes of nudity, elements that caused Häxan to be banned in the United States for decades. The film is framed as a silent documentary exploring the truth behind the plague of witchcraft accusations that have bubbled up over the course of recorded history. Sprung from the mind of Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen, this “documentary” includes shots in which the camera is simply pointed at the pages of an old book, showing the illustrations within its pages. Is Christensen serious? Or is he making this report with tongue planted firmly in cheek? The unique slice of silent cinema is available from the Criterion Collection in two separate versions, one of which includes an interchangeably creepy and dryly humorous narration by the great William S. Burroughs, which is alone worth the price of admission.
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)
The magical and musical Technicolor land of Oz, as rendered in Victor Fleming‘s iconic adaptation of L. Frank Baum‘s classic book, is a beautiful relic of a long-dead era of Hollywood. (Interestingly, filmmakers George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, and King Vidor directed sequences of the film, although they did not receive credit.) To utter a cliché such as “they don’t make them like this anymore” would be a disgusting understatement. The utter extravagance of every element of its production is breathtaking, from the set design to the make up and wardrobe. The lavish special effects are remarkable, including bursts of red smoke and shiny plastic leaves hanging from painted trees, phenomenally conveying this otherworldly land. The effect of that initial moment of Technicolor, as Dorothy takes her first steps out into this strange new world, has retained every ounce of its emotional power. It’s one of the finest transitions in the history of cinema due to its deeply relatable emotional resonance. Who amongst us hasn’t experienced that miraculous moment where our lives seemed to transition from the drab to the brilliantly bold?
I Married a Witch (René Clair)
Charmingly funny and moving at a sprinter’s pace, I Married a Witch is smarter and more light on its feet than the well-worn premise would have you believe. A witch decides to use a love potion on the descendant of the man who burned her at the stake. The plan is aimed to make this man, a rising politician, utterly miserable, ruining his life. However, the plan bears some unforeseen results, complicating life for the witch. Although actor Fredric March reportedly clashed with star Veronica Lake on set, the evidence is nowhere to be found in the film. For most of the running time, March is burdened with the straight role of the hapless comedic foil, always rebuffing Lake’s continued romantic advances. (Admittedly, March lands the biggest laugh in the movie with his reveal of an unlikely election result.) If anyone was ever in doubt of Lake’s comedic chops , they should look no further than René Clair‘s immaculate film. Lake’s performance absolutely personifies movie star, deliriously demonstrating the reasons behind her enduring popularity: she’s not only gorgeous, but immensely witty and smart, unquestionably one of the finest comedic actresses of her generation.
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski‘s film adaptation of Ira Levin‘s bestseller follows expecting parents Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassevettes) as they move into a new apartment and find their neighbors may be witchcraft-plotting Satanists. Guy, an up-and-coming actor, auditions for off-Broadway plays and motorcycle commercials to middling success, while Rosemary deals with far more sinister forces at home. Some of the most effectively creepy moments are mined from Rosemary’s dream sequences, which Polanski shot handheld and often with over-saturated natural light. There’s a hazy, otherworldly quality to these moments, toying with that fine line between surreality and magical realism. As Rosemary’s pregnancy advances, the clues begin mounting little by little: her unexpected weight loss, her male neighbor’s mysteriously pierced ears, and her husband’s endless excuses to get out of the flat, masking his trips next door to plot further with the neighbors. The tragedy of Rosemary’s Baby comes from the chilling realization that, no matter what, a mother cannot disown her child. It’s also darkly funny to think that Rosemary’s husband is basically betraying her to this nefarious coven for a chance at — of all things — a Gene Roddenberry audition.
The Devils (Ken Russell)
Still unreleased in its full grandeur — though Christopher Nolan is trying — Ken Russell‘s masterpiece The Devils was made in 1971 and remains as contemporary as anything released today. In 17th-century Loudon, a handsome priest is accused of witchcraft by a hateful and repressed mother superior nun whose impure fantasies I should be careful not to describe. The savage and blasphemous decadence Russell and production designer Derek Jarman achieve with their visuals remains unparalleled in cinema. The sheer scale of Jarman’s sets truly inspire awe, the walls covered in pristine white tiles a visual that appears to have inspired Alejandro Jodorowsky as much as Peter Maxwell Davies‘ disturbing score influenced Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film’s most controversial elements — the violence, nudity, and defacing of hallowed religious icons — have actually allowed The Devils to age rather nicely, and the overtly satiric nature of Russell’s tone gleefully subverts its bitter political undercurrent. Whether you take it all literally or embrace its insanity and have a laugh, I can assure you that Ken Russell would be indifferent.
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy)
Admittedly the biggest stretch for inclusion on this list, The Wicker Man is a delicious and alluring pagan feast of the senses. A deeply religious police detective (Edward Woodward) travels to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl who the townspeople bizarrely do not remember. How could this be? The community is presided over by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), a seemingly benevolent and educated man whose family has owned the island for generations. His agreeable nature masks a sinister urge for self-preservation, and soon motives become crushingly clear as the detective’s reality becomes increasingly opaque. The townspeople have sex in the streets, a severed hand is used as a candle, and a dead hare is found in a child’s grave. An offer of sacrifice is made to the detective: a beautiful young woman to take his pious virginity. Britt Ekland‘s stunning turn as the landlord’s daughter walks a delicate line, her smoldering sexuality used like a weapon against her Christian adversary. In one of the film’s most memorably unsettling sequences, Ekland performs a heathen dance of seduction, her siren song tempting the quivering police officer in his rumpled pajamas. In that moment, our humble detective is unquestionably under her spell.
Suspiria (Dario Argento)
Generally considered the ultimate giallo film, Suspiria is a boldly stylized horror thriller set at a lavish dance academy on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. Susi (Jessica Harper), a new student, finds herself under the thumb of the school’s grinning, diabolical staff, who assure her nothing unusual is happening. Quite the opposite: this school is merely a front, concealing the lair of a coven of spiteful witches who kill anyone who offends their tastes. Suspiria‘s tone is pitched at a level of beatific surreality, one which heedlessly ignores narrative sanity in favor of Dario Argento‘s trademarked twisted dream logic. Even the densely colorful production design stands out as lushly and profanely ostentatious, stylishness bordering on hedonistic excess. Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro lovingly referred to the art design, inspired by the work of MC Escher, as “the most deranged in cinema history.” The only film that might even challenge that mantle is also on this list: Ken Russell’s The Devils.
Black Sunday (Mario Bava)
The ghoulish mood and atmosphere Mario Bava delivers in Black Sunday would drive most genre filmmakers into a pure cinematic frenzy. The film’s marvelous look places the audience in this haunted landscape, among Gothic castles and dark forests chillingly evoking a sense of impending doom. It’s no shock that the former cinematographer would strike such an ominous chord with his directorial debut, a film Tim Burton cites as one of his personal favorites. B-movie black and white photography rarely looks as lush as what Bava accomplished when working as his own D.P., while the occasional flash of his clunky, rookie workmanship lend the film an endearingly handmade quality. The film’s star Barbara Steele — an actress who seems to mostly consist of eyeballs and eyelashes — plays the dual role of the witch and her innocent victim. Her work is uneven in a sort of brilliant way, underlining Bava’s interest in creating unforgettable moments rather than maintaining boringly consistent characters. Both of Steele’s roles share a crazed and piercing stare, which inspired many of the film’s striking posters. Delivering an ending that feels simultaneously startling and inevitable, Black Sunday remains a cornerstone of ’60s Italian horror.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki)
The pure whimsical delight of Kiki’s Delivery Service and its titular protagonist allow Hayao Miyazaki‘s brisk narrative (from a novel by Eiko Kadono) to soar to clever and utterly unexpected heights. Arguably Miyazaki’s most gleefully accessible work, the plot follows a good-hearted thirteen-year-old witch, Kiki, as she begins her first mandatory year of training away from home. With only her sardonic talking cat, Jiji, to keep her company, she soon discovers that her ability to fly could be used to start her own delivery service. Refreshingly, Kiki is just one of many strong female characters featured in the film. In the end, our protagonist takes on the role of the she-knight in shining armor, storming the castle to save her male love interest, a wonderful gender reversal of antiquated narrative formula. If I’ve made the film sound like anything but a joyful and visually stunning adventure, please forgive. Kiki’s Delivery Service is arguably the warmest, most heartfelt entry in the annals of witch cinema.
The Witches (Nicolas Roeg)
The unlikely pairing of Jim Henson and Nicolas Roeg may seem like the makings for a lame film-geek joke — until you remember their enchanting children’s film, The Witches. Based on a lesser-known Roald Dahl book, its script was adapted for the screen by Don’t Look Now scribe Allan Scott, who brings a wryly endearing tone to this fanciful narrative. I saw the film theatrically at the time of its original release and loved it for its visual peculiarities and unpredictable plot developments. Today, it feels like a throwback to darker family movies of the ’80s (e.g. Joe Dante’s Gremlins) where death is a very real possibility and consequences are treacherously dire. The Witches is not only a playful fairy tale, but a much-needed reminder that, in children’s cinema, having fun and getting scared are often synonymous.
The Witch opens wide on Friday.