Something wicked this way comes…
With the recent cinematic release of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, we started to think about the history of witches in genre cinema and decided to take a look back.
One thing that is very clear about witches on celluloid is that they seem to fall into two very distinct descriptive groups. Either they are as brazen as a flying broom, with characters openly poring around cauldrons, wearing capes—or on occasion, next to nothing—and looking clearly like the harpies of popular folklore or they come across in the worryingly proper guise of helpful and polite old ladies who just happen to live in the same apartment block as the main character.
The earliest committal to film of witches is the 1922 documentary, Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages. It takes a look back at how people used to cry witchcraft whenever someone they couldn’t understand did something likewise. It takes us through the process of how witches were ‘recognised’ and presents what techniques were used to force the poor woman involved to confess her deeds, including showing many of the tools used by the German Inquisition in their torture chambers. Honestly, Guantanamo Bay looks like a holiday camp compared to some of the tricks used. Filmed at the time it was, there is little sound, but it is fascinating and well worth a watch.
For the next strong examples, you have to fast forward to the 1960s, where we meet films such as Witchfinder General, Black Sunday and, most famously of all, Rosemary’s Baby. The first two of these focus more on the brutality previously mentioned in Haxan, on the crackdown of witchcraft in olden times and include the Salem Greatest Hits package of torture and being burned at the stake for the crime. Rosemary’s Baby brings it all slap bang into modern New York and focuses on a happy couple who move into a new apartment and find their neighbours a little nosey. Of course, they are Satan worshippers and via Mia Farrow’s main character, they manage to birth the big man himself.
1970 gave us the triple bill of the infamous Mark of the Devil, tongue scene and all, the Vincent Price film Cry of the Banshee and the lesser known Mark of the Witch, while Dario Argento gave us the luridly brilliant Suspiria in 1977, the story of a young starlet who attends a ballet academy before realising that it is, in fact, a front for something far darker. The giallo colour scheme and death scenes in this make it a worthwhile watch at any time, regardless if you’re looking for witches.
The ‘80s were more the domain of the slashers than witches, but there were some notable incursions onto the big screen; 1989’s Warlock, with Julian Sands as the titular character, because we’re all about sexual equality here at TIH, and the Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff starring Witchery (aka Witchcraft or Ghosthouse 2).
1996 saw a more modern take on a coven of witches with The Craft with a Scream fresh Neve Campbell before the end of the century gave us one of the most polarising horror films of all time, The Blair Witch Project. Sure, it was found footage and focused more on a trio of idiotic campers looking for clues about the titular murderer of children than the scary sorceress herself, but it was a cultural phenomenon, with the most ingenious use of internet viral marketing seen at that time. Plus, if you watch it in the right environment (we suggest alone, the night before you go camping) then it is still pretty scary in the right places.
The new millennium has brought us a new stream of films that have tried different variations on the old theme, including the impressively gory Hansel & Gretel (the Jeremy Renner starring vehicle, not the cheap, turgid other one with the same name) and Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem, which took imagery to a new level when it came to witches on the big screen, but still they were mostly the nice old ladies in the other apartment.
Rounding us off on the big screen, and bringing us pretty much up to date, is the simply horrible The Last Witch Hunter which, although it has an impressive cast including Elijah Wood and Michael Caine, has so many issues running through it that it completely misfires.
Almost by definition, you could also include gypsy curses within the realm of witchcraft, and therefore would have to involve films like Thinner and Drag Me to Hell among others. On top of these, we could also include various other witch related films, such as Disney’s Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, especially as Sam Raimi has gone on record to say that the possessed trees in the film influenced his own trees in Evil Dead. For a children’s film, the titular characters in Roald Dahl’s The Witches are pretty scary looking, and that’s before they start their plan to kill all the children in the world by turning them into mice via contaminated chocolate. The wicked witches of the East and West from The Wizard of Oz deserve a notable mention too, especially as they appear via the old clichés on broomsticks and with green skin and hooked noses.
Genre television has not escaped the glare of witchery either, with American Horror Story basing their third season in a coven in New Orleans and there were a steady number of witches in the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, we count this as horror). Hell, even Scooby Doo and his Mystery Machine gang came across a few witches in their time (or at least impostors pretending to be them in order to get their hands on an inheritance or other scurrilous scheme).
Of course, we could list any number of cheap direct-to-DVD/VHS films and sequels here, and this is not an exhaustive list—we’re sure we’ve probably even missed a couple–but felt it best to focus on the bigger players. Feel free to add any more examples and discuss in the comments below.
One thing is for sure, whereas other classic horror figures such as vampires, werewolves and other monsters are not based in reality, but more often than not the virulent imagination of a horror writer, witches in reality are merely misunderstood.
As a result, they are destined, more often than not, to be relegated to being background characters, plot points to drive a film through, but rarely in the limelight. The epitome of a witch in a film is more about symbolism and deeper meanings rather than a scary monster.
Just don’t let them near your children, especially if they are overbearingly polite and happen to knit a lot.