You know me, I am not one to shy away from witches in movies, no matter how sensational or stereotyped they may be! (Note: I am not discussing pagan witches here, I will post another list of films with pagan themes next.) The portrayal of witches in films as evil, seductive, greedy for power, bloodthirsty, cruel, well, I think it’s all built upon some combination of fairy tales, the horror story that was the Salem Witch Trials, and the paranoid portrayals from the years of the European witch craze. Plus Hollywood, which decided around 1938 that pointy black hats and green warty skin were de rigeur (I think they got that from a Goya painting).
So: these are some movies with witches in ’em that I like. Maybe you like them too, or will seek them out and decide for yourself. (I already mentioned Rosemary’s Baby, Crowhaven Farm and The Blair Witch Project in my last post, so that is the only reason they are not listed here.) If you want to check out more films in this genre, check out imdb’s exhaustive list here.
1. The Craft (1996) A clever, flashy movie about four teenage girls who dabble in witchcraft until they find out that all the white candles in the world won’t protect you from a sociopath. Plenty of authentic language and imagery drawn directly from contemporary Wicca (they did their research on this one, even if the story does not portray “the Craft” as particularly life-affirming), and great performances from Fairuza Balk and Robin Tunney. This one is responsible for the explosion of interest in Wicca in the late 1990s, especially where teenage girls were concerned.
2. Suspiria (1977) Dario Argento lent his creepy Italian sensibility to this odd horror film about a dance school and the coven of witches at its heart. Jessica Harper stars as a hapless new student who gets caught up in some evil doings. Haunting music (by a group called Goblin) and beautiful art direction, and some of the scariest murder scenes ever.
3. Stranger in Our House (1978) (aka Summer of Fear) This made for TV movie by Wes Craven stars none other than Linda Blair as a happy teenage girl whose cousin (whom she has never met) comes to visit. The cousin (who is a witch) causes all kinds of problems but everyone loves her, so Linda looks like the crazy one. Like Single White Female, but with a witch.
4. The Initiation of Sarah (1978) Another made for TV movie about witches; boy, the ’70s were great! (There was a remake of this in 2006, nowhere near as good) Kay Lenz stars as Sarah, an ugly duckling whose beautiful sister (Morgan Brittany) outshines her in college. Sarah joins a sorority for plain janes that turns out to be led by a witch (Shelley Winters). Terrorized by the beautiful people (including Morgan Fairchild), Sarah exacts revenge in grand Carrie-like style. (yeah, it’s kind of a rip-off of Carrie, but it’s very good)
5. Beautiful Creatures (2013) Based on a successful YA novel series, this glamorous film has a stellar cast (Jeremy Irons! Emma Thompson! Viola Davis! Emmy Rossum!) who obviously delighted in an opportunity to chew up the scenery. A young girl born into a family of witches (English actress Alice Englert) is sent to live with her family in rural Louisiana; cue old estate mansion, crumbling on the outside and sparkling on the inside. She falls for a local boy and has to face coming into her powers in a community that fears her…then there’s that sexy evil cousin…Really fun movie, great costumes, and not too heavy on the special effects…6. Harry Potter and the….all of those things (2001-2011) The films became more sophisticated and tightly designed as time went on, partly because there was a different director for each of the first three films. But the maturing young actors and their characters’ more complicated problems had something to do with that too. The opulence of the films calmed down, too, once we all saw the wonders of Hogwarts; but these films were all utterly thrilling and entertaining, with some profound things to say about the ethics of magic, and doing the right thing no matter how wrong it feels. And you can get a boxed DVD set, on the cheap side, or the pricey, fancy version.
7. Sleepy Hollow (1999) I’d have liked for this to be darker, and maybe not quite so Tim Burton-y. But it has a great cast (Johnny Depp! Christina Ricci! Miranda Richardson! Michael Gambon!) and gorgeous art direction (steampunk before there was steampunk), and is a really interesting take on this old well-loved story set in New York’s Hudson Valley. (There’s also a new TV series called Sleepy Hollow that I am planning to check out soon!)
8. Practical Magic (1998) Though it bears only scant resemblance to the novel by Alice Hoffman (which is a shame), this is an entertaining and well-acted film about two sisters (Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock) who are witches, one kinda naughty and one mostly nice, and their aunts (the excellent Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest) who try to raise them to realize their gifts. Best change from the novel that was a stroke of genius: giving the aunts such great voices and personalities, though the midnight margaritas may have been a bit much.
9. The Devils (1971) Not for the faint of heart, this film by Ken Russell is about a real life priest accused of heresy and witchcraft (based upon Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon). Father Urban Grandier (Oliver Reed in one of his finest roles) is a womanizer and a narcissist; but he inspires his congregation to love God. A deformed nun (Vanessa Redgrave, in an amazing performance) obsessed with Grandier decides to betray him and the witchfinders come to town. There’s plenty of Russell’s customary over-the-top decadence, but the underlying themes of political corruption make this fascinating. Look for art direction by a very young Derek Jarman, who later became one of the UK’s finest filmmakers.
10. The Lords of Salem (2012) I am listing this because, well, I just think more people need to see it. The writing is not as tight as it should be, and the leaps in logic throughout the plot are sometimes annoying. But Mr. Zombie has such a gift for visual impact, for creating magic from the mundane, that I can’t help but find beauty and profundity in his work, even this one, that needed another revision or two before the final draft was final. Filmed partly in Salem, Mass. this is atmospheric and spooky, a nice choice for Samhain week and and the darkening days of November.