Charming screens for close to a century, cinema is saturated with portrayals of witches, good and bad. To save you suffering through the latter, Generally Gothic has compiled a list of the ten topmost witchy watches… As if by magic!
Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen (who also features as the devil), Häxan is an avant-garde combination of documentary and silent horror from early film history.
In contrast to the literary persuasion of his cinematic contemporaries, Christensen favoured non-fiction sources; most notably the Malleus Maleficarum – an extensive treatise on witchcraft published in 1487.
Banned in the USA and significantly censored elsewhere, the resulting Swedish-Danish film was both shocking and educational. Split into seven distinct chapters, the first is delivered like a lecture, placing the following narrative in historical and cultural context.
Under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages, Häxan was re-cut by beat filmmaker Antony Balch with a frenzied jazz score by Daniel Humain and punctuated narration by William S. Burroughs, for re-release in the USA in 1968.
At once eerie, informative, and an evocative piece of cinematic history, Häxan is the foundation of witchcraft on film.
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Also known as The Mask of Satan (and occasionally Revenge of the Vampire), Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is inspired by Nickolai Gogol’s Russian language horror novella, Vij (1835).
As was common for Italian cinema of the time, Black Sunday was shot entirely without sound. The joy of mid-century dubbing is, therefore, imposed upon all viewers, regardless of language.
Banned in the UK until 1968, the film, which opens with the atmospheric execution of a witch, was considered particularly graphic for its time.
This horrifying scene climaxes as Asa (the witch) delivers her dying curse and a spiked mask is hammered onto her face with a bone-shattering whack. The main plot, set centuries later, is filled with death, the reanimated dead, and the fear that both inspire.
Black Sunday is gruesome and gorgeous, a haunting display of Italian gothic horror, and a terrible, beautiful portrayal of a fantastical witch.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
With an impressive 99% on review-aggregation site, Rotten Tomatoes, Rosemary’s Baby is an unfaltering success.
Based upon Irma Levin’s 1967 novel of the same name, Polanski brings soft, cold colour to Rosemary’s Baby, creating a stylised, realist horror interpretation.
The plot follows a pregnant housewife through point of view shots and extreme, emotional close-ups, as her occult neighbours ensnare her with witchcraft and the devil creeps closer.
With a best-selling novel at its core, Rosemary’s Baby artfully explores [loss of] control within the contexts of fear, the psyche, religion, the body, the home, and gender.
“There’s nothing supernatural in the film, and everything that occurred could have happened in real life,” explains Polanski (Conversations inside the Criterion Collection, 2014), which could account for the continuing popularity of Rosemary’s Baby. Either that, or a pact with the devil.
SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)
Not to be confused with the Nick Cage Crusades-era adventure with which it shares its name, the 1970s Season of the Witch is a vibrant trip à la giallo master, Dario Argento.
Initially cut and renamed Hungry Wives!, it was distributed as softcore porn, rather than as the feminist film Argento had intended it to be.
Like Rosemary’s Baby, Season of the Witch explores the still pertinent issue of gender roles. Dissimilarly though, this time our housewife protagonist pursues witchcraft of her own free will.
With its choppy editing and wooden acting that takes a moment to kick in, it is a heady, campy portrait of problematic female empowerment. All that The Love Witch is, it owes to films like Season of the Witch.
The second technicolour offering from Italian master of horror, Dario Argento, remains a far greater success.
Suspiria, meaning ‘sighs’ or ‘deep breaths’ in Latin, is based loosely upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profoudis (essay, 1845), and follows Suzy, an American ballerina, on her dance studies in Germany.
In this colourful example of giallo horror, Suzy, along with the viewer, is thrust into a lurid world of splendour and murder.
With an iconic score by prog-rockers Goblin and expressionist-influenced cinematography, Suspiria is a nightmare as unnatural as its acting and dramatic as its colour-palette. Lacking entirely in subtlety, the film exudes style as it does blood: freely. Suspiria is a performance and an experience, all orchestrated by a witch.
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
Perhaps influenced by the second wave of feminism, the 80s and 90s saw a shift toward a sexy, powerful on-screen portrayal of woman and witch.
The Witches of Eastwick is black- and horror-comedy, with a coven of women (Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie), or Daryl, a single, seductive man in the central role, depending on the angle.
Directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame, the plot, which follows three recently single women discovering their power together, drastically deviates from John Updike’s 1984 novel from which it takes both name and premise.
Interestingly, the word ‘witch’ is never spoken throughout the duration of the film, although Daryl is a self-confessed “horny little devil.”
Brimming with big hair and dressing gowns, The Witches of Eastwick is wildly absurd… For which it is both criticised and praised.
KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)
In an absolute departure from the visceral horror featured up until this point, Kiki’s Delivery Service is the first family-friendly film listed.
This Studio Ghibli animation is an adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s award-winning Japanese children’s novel (1985), with which it shares its name.
Kiki’s is a coming-of-age story; the eponymous witch is followed as she departs home at the pivotal age of 13, as all good, young witches must.
Whilst the original version is better, the edited English-dub has its own star: sassy black cat familiar, Jiji.
Kiki’s craft is a device through which her development is marked, but her brightly illustrated adventure is certainly not lacking magic. Through her self-discovery and growth, it is in its innocence that Kiki’s Delivery Service charms.
PRACTICAL MAGIC (1998)
Based on Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel, Practical Magic is commonly considered a rom-com, but is a story of sisterhood (in family and community) above all else.
Entirely without originality at this point in film history, the story begins with a New England Puritan – an accepted ‘original witch’ – casting a spell in the moments before her execution.
Undoing this curse becomes the preoccupation of the Owens sisters along with their aunts and daughters/nieces, with whom their unrealistic one ginger- and one raven-haired pairing is mirrored.
With the Owens family outcast for their practice, director Griffin Dunne allows space for the word ‘witch’ to be replaced by the empathic viewer, but sometimes, midnight margarita PJ dance parties are all the magic you need.
THE CRAFT (1996)
An original creation of director Andrew Fleming, The Craft is a film about self-acceptance, friendship (or sisterhood), and witchcraft.
Whilst eventually succumbing to the good [witch] vs bad [witch] fight over a boy, the story still offers greater moral depth than often allowed in teen movies.
The Craft begins as Rachel, a natural born witch, completes the coven of her three new friends, set against the familiar backdrop of an American high school.
Giving a voice to the nonconformists, serious themes such as suicide, abuse, racial discrimination, and body image issues are explored with maturity…and all the drama expected of a supernatural horror, and teenagers.
THE WITCH (2015)
Impressively, The VVitch: A New England Folktale (referred to simply as The Witch) is Robert Egger’s directorial debut.
As we have come to expect, it begins in 17th century New England. Unusually, however, it stays there.
Egger’s original tale captures the brutality faced by early European settlers to the future-United States. The Witch places an ostracised puritanical family on an isolated farm on the outskirts of a forest in eerie greyscale splendour. The family’s daily struggle is against nature, one another, and soon something else…
Accompanied by Mark Korven’s discordant score, The Witch is stunningly bleak and beautifully sinister.
And as if that’s not enough, it offers Black Philip, the unintentional yet loudly sung hero in the collective eyes of the internet.
It’s almost time to light the candles and conjure up a movie marathon, but before you go…
Which witch were you surprised to see? Which witch did you miss? The comment section is listening.
Continue reading with and in-depth review of The Love Witch and An Interview with a Witch – both part of May’s Season of the Witch.