Of all the classic monsters of cinema, the witch is arguably the most versatile. Unlike vampires and werewolves, they can hide in plain sight. Plus they’re usually women, and while they generally don’t rely on the brute strength one would expect from Frankenstein’s monster or an axe-wielding maniac, witches do have the power of black magic at their disposal, which allows them to get away with bloody murder without dirtying their hands.
Sometimes witches are sweet, helpful and even funny. It all depends on what sort of movie you’re watching. So here’s a handy beginner’s guide to the most noteworthy specimens of witchy cinema.
HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922)
Easily one of the oldest and most fascinating films about witchcraft, this infamous 1922 Swedish film combines documentary, re-enactment, and more or less straight narrative into one (sorta) cohesive whole. Not only does it work as a creepy collection of historical information; it also works as a hell of a Halloween party “background noise” sort of movie — and the Criterion Collection release is nothing short of fantastic.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
This immortal classic warrants inclusion in the Beginner’s Guide for two reasons: A) it more than capably illustrates that witches can be very kind as well as very evil, and B) it proves that witches can be scary in even the sweetest of classic family films. And don’t even get me started on those freaky-ass flying monkeys.
I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)
An amusing and enjoyably fast-paced screwball comedy in which a typically adorable Veronica Lake plays a modern-day witch who falls for an engaged gentleman and causes all sorts of trouble. Fredric March portrays the object of Ms. Lake’s affections, plus we have the lovable old Cecil Kellaway as her troublemaking warlock father. Based on the 1941 novel The Passionate Witch, this Rene Clair farce clocks in at a mere 77 minutes but manages to offer a solid collection of set pieces — thanks in part to an uncredited Preston Sturges, no doubt.
BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)
This charming late-‘50s romantic comedy is so quick-witted and appealing it makes one wonder how it hasn’t been remade (perhaps twice) by now. Kim Novak stars as a good-natured witch who falls for an engaged man (the always adorable Jimmy Stewart) and casts a spell to ensure that her affections will be reciprocated. But of course that creates all sorts of problems because while witchcraft is certainly powerful, it apparently doesn’t match up all that well to the powers of, well, love.
It’s all rather quaint and old-fashioned, but the screenplay, based on a popular stage play, is frequently very witty, and there’s an undeniable chemistry between Ms. Novak and Mr. Stewart. (They’d share the screen once again this year with Vertigo.) Toss in a supporting cast that includes Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs and Hermione Gingold and, again, you wonder why someone hasn’t remade this classy little witchcraft comedy. But perhaps it’s best to leave a few hidden treasures alone.
TV trivia: the similarly-themed I Married a Witch and Bell Book and Candle were both clear and obvious inspirations for the wildly popular 1964 sitcom known as Bewitched.
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Easily one of the most influential Italian horror films, Mario Bava’s first and finest feature introduced a whole new style of horror. Like many horror films about witches, it begins 200 years ago with a stake, a fire and a curse before moving on to a more contemporary setting. Suffice to say that an evil witch princess has been accidentally awakened and will stop at nothing to get revenge on her murderer’s descendants. Also there’s a local girl who bears a striking resemblance to the nefarious Princess Asa — and you just know that none of this is going to end well. And did I mention the vampires?
Noteworthy for its extreme violence (this was 1960, after all), gorgeous production design, and beautiful black and white cinematography, Black Sunday marked the arrival of not only director Mario Bava, but also of the lovely leading lady known as Barbara Steele, who would go on to appear in horror films by directors like Roger Corman, Lucio Fulci, David Cronenberg and Joe Dante.
BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962)
A slightly obscure but entirely deserving inclusion in the “beginner’s guide,” if only because it’s a fun witchcraft flick, and it has an impressive literary lineage: the film is based on a Fritz Lieber novel called Conjure Wife, and its screenwriters are genre luminaries Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Tough to screw a movie up with that kind of writing talent behind it.
Known as Night of the Eagle outside of the U.S., it’s the story of a college professor who forces his devoted wife to give up her witching ways — only to come to regret his decision after a second witch starts brewing up trouble.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
Released as The Conqueror Worm in the United States, although it has no connection to the Poe poem of the same name, this rock-solid Roger Corman production didn’t exactly blow people away upon its initial release, but it has since gone on to earn a reputation as one of the finest British horror films of the 1960s. (And between Hammer, Amicus and a few other production companies, that’s a lot of solid horror titles.)
Vincent Price is at his most insidious as a 17th century “witchfinder” who travels the countryside ridding small villages of Satan’s influence. That most (or all) of the man’s victims are innocent doesn’t seem to matter one whit, at least until he targets a lovely young woman with an angry young lover. The razor-sharp screenplay (based on the novel by Ronald Bassett) strikes a fantastic balance between dark horror and even darker humor: You’re not likely to come across a more devilishly enjoyable Vincent Price performance.
BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971)
This well-regarded live-action / animation musical comedy shares a whole lot of DNA with Mary Poppins, and while it’s not quite as charming as that 1964 classic, there’s certainly enough to enjoy in this tale of an apprentice witch (Angela Lansbury), a lovable scoundrel (David Tomlinson) and three adorable orphans — provided your kids don’t mind watching “old-timey” movies, that is.
A young American girl discovers horrific witch-related secrets after arriving at a creepy German dance academy, and that’s all fine and good — but what makes this Italian classic so well-regarded after all these years? It has to be the look of it. (Mr. Argento’s visual approach was reportedly inspired by Disney’s classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which also features a memorable witch.) Arguably the reddest movie you’ll ever see, the visual side of Suspiria is nothing short of breathtaking. From its eye-popping Technicolor presentation to its wonderfully eerie production design, this is a horror film that deserves the largest high-definition screen you can find. That’s not to say that Suspiria is a slouch in the aural department: The score is by Goblin, and it’s amazing.
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
Witchcraft went mainstream in 1987 with this, ahem, wickedly amusing dark comedy in which Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer fall for the charms of a mysterious man (Jack Nicholson), only to turn the tables on the creep once his nefarious plans become clear. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the three ladies are, of course, witches — although they don’t seem to realize it until the handsome devil called Daryl Van Horne comes sniffing around. And I do mean devil.
Masterfully directed by George Miller, cleverly adapted from the John Updike novel, and anchored by a rock-solid cast — Veronica Cartwright and Richard Jenkins stand out among the ensemble — the film balances dark comedy, social satire, juicy melodrama and a nice dash of legitimate horror into the mix. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, you can only imagine what sort of madness three scorned women can whip up.
TEEN WITCH (1989)
This is a very goofy late-'80s relic that has gone on to earn a decent amount of cult-level notoriety, thanks mainly to this outrageously kitschy musical number that must be seen to be disbelieved.
THE WITCHES (1990)
The “Movies Inspired by the Works of Roald Dahl Film Festival” would, of course, include movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), James and the Giant Peach (1996), Matilda (1996), and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). But one of the very best Dahl adaptations is also one of the most easily overlooked. Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches is not only one of the best Dahl adaptations out there; it’s also one of the best genre films of the 1990s (if it’s me you’re reading, and you are).
Anyway, it’s also one of the straight-up creepiest family-friendly horror movies you’re ever likely to see. (Yes, even scarier than the equally PG-rated Poltergeist.) It’s about a young boy who stumbles across a massive gathering of witches, gets turned into a mouse and does all he can to thwart the nefarious queen of the hive (as played by a wonderfully nasty Anjelica Huston). Equal parts adorable (that little mouse/kid is really cute) and icky (the witch effects are simply fantastic), this is the sort of scary tale that turns kids into horror fans. Plus it’s not every day you see a family film directed by Nicolas Roeg.
HOCUS POCUS (1993)
This goofy, energetic Disney production is a lot like the live-action films the company produced in the 1970s (such as the aforementioned Bedknobs and Broomsticks): it deals with witches in a light, clearly “family-friendly” fashion, it’s full of colorfully over-the-top performances (Bette Midler is a hoot), and it’s gone on to enjoy quite the impressive shelf-life. As a matter of fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find another early-'90s release that has gained the cult following that Hocus Pocus has. It’s a Halloween season favorite that adults seem to enjoy even more than their kids do. (Especially the adults who saw it way back in '93.) The plot is simple stuff — a group of kids must save their town from a trio of recently resurrected witches — but there’s no denying that among “witch flicks,” this one has definitely found its niche.
THE CRAFT (1996)
We’ve all seen horror movies in which teenage misfits strike back against their snotty oppressors in all sorts of violent and horrific fashion. (It’s the Carrie (1976) template, basically.) And this mid-'90s upped the ante by offering us not one troubled outsider who wreaks unholy havoc; it has four!
Robin Tunney is the newcomer at a ritzy girls’ school, and it doesn’t take long before she stumbles across a trio of troubled teens who dabble in the art of witchcraft. At first it’s just simple stuff, but of course things quickly spiral out of control, which forces the “new girl” to decide if her “cool clique” of friends aren’t all that awesome after all. The film boasts several clever ideas — even if the movie as a whole feels less than entirely satisfying — and is probably worth checking out for Fairuza Balk’s wonderfully over-the-top performance alone.
Also earns bonus points for the clever tag line: “Exorcise Your Rites.”
Note: There’s a remake of The Craft in the works, which might be considered bad news except that they hired Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) to direct it. And that makes it good news.
PRACTICAL MAGIC (1998)
It’s not all the memorable, truth be told, but if you’re looking for the mainstream basics of witch-related cinema, you could probably do worse than this atonal yet engaging genre mash-up. Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman, the flick seems to have struggled through rewrites and reshoots, but anytime you have a comedic witchcraft movie that stars Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, Dianne Wiest, and Stockard Channing, you’re bound to enjoy something.
What was once a simple and unexpectedly intelligent sitcom about the ways in which a witch would deal with life as a suburban housewife somehow became a big, fat Hollywood remake that aimed for “meta” yet landed on “mess.” Had the producers opted for a more straightforward adaptation, there’s no logical reason that Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell would have delivered a fair amount of simple chuckles, but this confused, confusing sorta-semi-remake couldn’t decide if it was shooting for farce, satire, or sincerity.
The plot, of sorts, borrows the old “witch casts spell on man to make him fall in love with her” material that was already getting a little stale in the 1960s, but instead of simply remaking the sitcom, the movie is about an actor who is about to star in a remake of the sitcom. It’s all very meta, busy, and self-referential but—despite a frankly amazing ensemble cast — there’s very little here in the way of wit, wackiness, or plain old fun.
HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013)
Anyone who saw the freakishly amusing “Nazi zombie” import called Dead Snow (2009) as it flew across the festival circuit wondered what Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola could do if he was backed by a (relatively) big-time Hollywood budget — and then we found out. Casually dismissed by most critics — some might say unfairly — and generally ignored by multiplex audience, Mr. Wirkola’s American debut is actually not a bad little genre mash-up at all.
The comic bookish plot is summed up right there in the title: a now grown-up Hansel and Gretel have become dedicated witch-slayers, thanks in no small part to the traumas they suffered as children. Backed by a pair of endearing sardonic performances (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton seem to be having some fun) and a nifty visual palette, this tongue-in-cheek action adventure/horror concoction also moves along at a brisk clip, shows off a decent handful of colorful set pieces, and delivers a more than ample array of badass special effects.
THE WITCH (2016)
Imagine, if you would, that video cameras existed in 1625 and that this is a documentary about a disgraced family who lives on the edge of a dark forest that may or may not contain a horrific witch. In other words, it’s amazing how realistic this odd, beautiful, and deliciously ambiguous horror film looks, sounds, and almost smells as it glides across the screen. To say much more would spoil the freaky fun, but suffice to say that The Witch is so damn good, it’s what inspired this article in the first place.