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Burned at the Stake: Cinematic Witchcraft Through the Ages

Written by on February 17, 2016 


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 Eggersmust-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)

I Married a Witch

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)

Rosemarys Baby

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)

The Devils

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.

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