a woman thought to have evil magic powers, popularly depicted as
wearing a black cloak and pointed hat, and flying on a broomstick.
synonyms: sorceress, enchantress, occultist, necromancer, Wiccan;
archaicbeldam; rarehex, pythoness
This article is to be the first in a series that will have me looking in to horror’s staple baddies. I had no choice but to start with witches – I love the practice of Traditional Witchcraft, and today is the Summer Solstice – an ancient day once celebrated as a powerful event and often utilised by European witches for casting great spells and rituals.
When horror uses witches, it is more often than not European witchcraft that they take from, mixing it with Wiccan practices and occasionally hoodoo (but mostly Wiccan), and finally adding old puritan stereotypes of devil worship. I do dislike that for the sake of a genre this broad practice has been bastardized by people who clearly do not do their research, some have went so far with their Hollywood-ised idea of witchcraft (‘Charmed’) that a whole generation ended up strutting about, calling themselves witches but not knowing what it was they actually practiced.
These issues can be overlooked at times though, when a good film is the end result, or when the film may adopt stereotypes in a way that celebrates the outlandish beauty of the practice or challenges negative cultural norms. If I had went out with the horror genre there would be a few more good ones to add, but here is the best of witches in horror.
10. ‘The Witches’
Hammer Horror’s ‘The Witches’ is a 1966 film directed by Cyril Frankel and based on a novel by Norah Lofts (published under Peter Curtis); and adapted for the screen by Nigel Kneale. Also released under the title ‘The Devil’s Own’, the film stars; owner of the films rights; Joan Fontaine, and supporting actress Kay Walsh. Fontaine plays a teacher who, after encounters with witchcraft practitioners in Africa, moves to a small English town with hopes of teaching in peace and safety.
This film stands out because it portrays the struggles between branches of witchcraft practices; the small English town itself having an opposition between the old wise women of the community and a coven that practice Wiccanised ritual.
9. ‘Black Sunday’
Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story ‘Viy’ and directed by Mario Bava, ‘Black Sunday’ is a film about a witch who seeks revenge from the grave for being persecuted for her practices with the help of her vampire lover. The witch, Princess Asa, is played by Barbara Steele (who plays a duel role in the film). The story is set in Russia when, after 200 years, Princess Asa’s coffin is damaged and she is able to return to life and uses the blood of others to rejuvenate her decomposed body. This vampire/witch crossover tale is Tim Burton’s favourite film.
Although Princess Asa is a witch, the idea of witches seeking eternal life and youth go hand in hand with the vampire curse, as blood is often seen as the life force and sacrifice in witchcraft.
8. ‘The Craft’
The 1996 teen movie ‘The Craft’ didn’t do any favours for witchcraft, and certainly played a big role in bastardizing today’s western practices; but I can’t help liking this film. I was five when this was released and I think it was this film that inspired me to read up on witchcraft more (as appose to Wiccanism, which is what is actually portrayed in the film).
Directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming (also co-written by Peter Filardi), the film sees Sarah (Robin Tunney) start at a new catholic high school where she falls in with a group of teen witches (Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True). Sarah’s natural supernatural powers help greaten the abilities of the entire coven, but as one of the group begins to go crazy with power the entire coven implodes.
The film has a fantastic 90s cast, great 90s music, and all the young female empowerment you could ask for. Fairuza Balk, who played Nancy in the film, is actually a practicing Wiccan; she as well as other Wiccans were consulted in order to make the films portrayal of Wiccan practices more accurate. Apparently, as Balk attempted to call on the corners (a Wiccan ritual) during filming, many strange occurrences took place such as a flock of bats hovering over the girls while the tide became violent and the circle of candles extinguishing.
You might be wondering why this made the list – this one isn’t exactly all about the witchcraft, but the story wouldn’t exist without the help of the local witch. Released in 1988 and directed by the late, great Stan Winston (his directorial debut); the film did not get much recognition in its time, which is a shame because it was such a good film with such a memorable character. Pumpkinhead could’ve become the stuff of legends (and surprisingly, Winston could not oversee the designing of Pumpkinhead because he was too busy directing; he was created entirely without Winston’s help).
The story sees a group of kids accidentally kill a boy in a biking accident while on a trip in the country. The father (Lance Henriksen) of the boy, so distraught, seeks the help of Haggis, the local witch, who summons a demon of vengeance for the father – Pumpkinhead.
Although the film has the standard 80s cheese attached, it is not your average slasher film, and it shows an important role that witchcraft practitioners have taken on since as far back as human civilization can be traced – as the link and communicator between planes of existence.
6. ‘Witchfinder General’
Also known as ‘Conqueror Worm’ (to pull in the American audiences due to Price’s previous role as Edgar Allen Poe), ‘Witchfinder General’ is a 1968 film directed and co-written by Michael Reeves; and is a more true to life tale of Matthew Hopkins and the people he tortured and murdered during his 3 year career as a witch hunter than a tale about witches themselves. Vincent Price plays the infamous witch hunter, and regarded it as his best horror film performance.
The prosecution of witches is often forgotten and disregarded in history because of the practices heavy reliance on the supernatural, making it something to be disregarded by the majority – however people to this day are still being burned alive for such practices and the selling of spell casting talents is such a lucrative business in Romania that witches were threatening to curse politicians in 2011 when discussions were taking place about taxing witchcraft as an occupation.
The film; which is a cross between horror and historical drama; is filled with vicious torture scenes and Price’s portrayal of Hopkins is how I always imagined him to be; cold, ruthless and sociopathic.
5. ‘The Woods’
Directed by Lucky McGee and written by David Ross, this 2006 film has some great insight in to witchcraft, in my opinion. The film sees teenager Heather (Agnes Bruckner) sent to a secluded boarding school in 1965 for causing a fire. Despite her father’s (Bruce Campbell) lack of finances, the dean of the school takes her in anyway. Heather appears to have some witch-like abilities herself, which become more obvious the longer she remains at the school.
Much like ‘Suspiria’ the story is that the school was taken over by witches 100 years prior, girls begin to go missing and unusual occurrences take place – it seems the witches have found the perfect way to collect young girls. Despite its similarities to other horror films, it stands out uniquely with its 60s setting and dreary fairy tale qualities.
4. ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’
Originally titled ‘Night of the Eagle’, ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’ is a 1962 screen adaptation of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel ‘Conjure Wife’. Written for the screen by Richard Matheson and directed by Sidney Hayers, the film is yet another classic British black and white to add the the collection.
The witchcraft used in this film is a mixture of European and Caribbean practices and I think is fairly respectful in its handling of the Caribbean witchcraft aspects. The film sees Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) discover that his wife is practicing witchcraft, and has been since their vacation in the Caribbean. Forcing her to burn all her charms and fetishes, they soon realize due to a dangerous run of bad luck that the Professor’s wife’s charms were actually protecting them from another practitioner’s evil intentions.
The thing that makes this film stand out from many of the others is that throughout the film you do not know if the magic is real or if paranoia and coincidence are the only things creating the couples bad luck.
3. ‘Hocus Pocus’
This Disney classic is out to have a dig at witches, but it’s all in good fun. Released in 1993 (also under the name ‘Abracadabra’) and written by Mick Garris; the story tells of three witch sister who after luring their final child victim in order to regain their beauty and youth, and turning a boy in to a cat that can never die, are caught by the village people and hanged. Swearing that they will return to steal all the lives of the children of Salem one day, 300 years later on Halloween a boy accidentally brings the sisters back from the dead and hilarity and a music number ensues.
The bumbling sisters are played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. Packed with all the delightfully fun and dark aspects of Halloween, I still enjoy watching this film. It is definitely not one reserved for the kids.
2. ‘George A. Romero’s Hungry Wives’
Another one of George A. Romero’s experimental pieces also known as ‘Season of the Witch’ (due to the inclusion of Donovan’s song of the same name) and ‘Jack’s Wife’; this is the one film Romero would like to one day remake. This kind of film is what I like to call Human Horror, horror created by the human condition. Released in 1972, the film stars Jan White as Joan Mitchell; a suburban housewife to a successful businessman and the mother of a 19 year old daughter – and she is completely bored with her lifestyle. Hearing that a practicing witch has moved in to the neighborhood she promptly investigates and soon begins to severe her ties to her old life to begin a new one as a witch, hoping to find the excitement and freedom she has been searching for.
This film always makes me a little sad with its brutal honesty about the patriarchal culture and gender roles – showing that even if you find a way to empower yourself, it cannot break you free of the chains that other people have created for you.
1. ‘Dario Argento’s Suspiria’
Dario Argento’s 1977 classic is perhaps the most well-known and celebrated in all of the Italian Horror sub-culture. The film sees Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American student move to a prestigious school of dance/boarding school in Germany where she soon discovers a coven of witches hiding amongst the faculty.
Written by both Dario Argento and, girlfriend at the time, Daria Nicolodi; the film was based on a story Nicolodi’s grandmother used to tell her about how she ran away from a music academy in Germany as a teen because she was convinced the faculty were witchcraft practitioners, as well as Nicolodi’s own dreams of an invisible witch and an exploding panther.
This film plays perfectly into the old fairy tale stereotypes of witches seeking out the youth of children; and thanks to the studio and Argento’s own father denying the request to use 12 year olds to play further on these fairy tale concepts, the film took on a unique attitude. Argento, from stubbornness, when refused the right to use a 12 year old cast did not change the script, giving the 20 year old students a sense of naivety to their words and actions. As well as this he had all the doorknobs in the film raised so they were at the height of the actresses heads, giving a psychological sense of infancy. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli modeled the films colour scheme from the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (another film with a young girl being pursued by a witch).
‘Suspiria’ bombards the senses with full-blast music, lights, colours, imagery, and artistically violent murders in such a way that unnerves the audience and leaves you feeling as though you are have just had a nightmare. There is no sense of control in this film and you can feel just how helpless Suzy is when everything around her is not as it seems and the witches are able to put spells on her with no way for her to defend herself.
So ‘Suspiria’ doesn’t just get the top listing because it is such a fantastic film that you literally experience as you watch, it gets its place at number one because it depicts such powerful, badass witches – even if they are pretty evil.