Tuesday, February 23, 2016

9 Cool Witch Movies

by Patrick Bromley
If the broom fits, ride it.

With Robert Eggers' The Witch now in theaters and proving to be this year's most debated horror movie ("It's great!" "It's terrible!" - The Internet), it's got me reflecting on other witch movies. Along with ghost movies and possession movies, witch movies have always been one of my least favorite -- and, to be fair, least explored -- subgenres of horror, so there are a ton of entries I have never seen. I am aware of this.

As a result, I do not suggest that these are meant to be witch movies you have never heard of. You have probably heard of most of these. You've probably even seen most of them. I know there's nothing more annoying than a list of films claiming to be overlooked or underrated and it's all Jackie Brown and Memento. The movies are on the list because even for someone who's not super into witch movies, these are really good.

1. I Married a Witch (1942, René Clair)
Like a sort of proto-Bewitched, René Clair's 1942 fantasy comedy is super offbeat, about a witch (Veronica Lake) and her father who are burned at the stake at the start of the film and curse the male descendants of the Puritan responsible (Frederic March) to all marry the wrong woman and never find happiness. Centuries later one such descendant is engaged to be married when the spirits of the witch and her father are freed and try to break up the wedding -- Lake because she loves March and her father because he hates him. This isn't even the whole movie! There's still a whole subplot about a political campaign. I happen to love early fantasy movies because of the ways the filmmakers resolve the special effects -- two characters spend a lot of time as plumes of smoke -- and I love the way this movie is light and silly while not shying away from things like witchcraft or stake burnings. It takes the supernatural stuff as seriously as it can inside what is a pleasant romantic comedy, made 100 times more pleasant by the impossibly adorable performance of Veronica Lake (seriously, WHAT) and Frederic March as the Darren stiff who loosens up and learns to love her. Criterion put this out on Blu-ray and it's well worth picking up.

2. Black Sunday (1960, dir. Mario Bava)
Mario Bava's first credited film as director still might be his very best -- of those I've seen, at least -- about a witch (Barbara Steele) who is sentenced to death by her brother (dick move, that) and returns 200 years later to take her revenge. So it's like I Married a Witch except without any of the romance or cute stuff. In fact, for a movie made in 1960 it's incredible just how intense Black Sunday is, from the spikes being driven into Barbara Steele's face to the blood drinking and burning bodies that resolve the film (much of the violence was taken out of the AIP release, so make sure you get the European cut; each is available individually from Kino Lorber but the R2 Arrow Blu-ray offers both). As JB and I have talked about on the podcast, Black Sunday does the thing that a lot of European horror films of that period do, which is offer a spectacular opening and spectacular finish and quite a bit of dead space in between. I wouldn't call the middle portion of Black Sunday "dead space" necessarily,  because it's still stylish and insanely beautiful with some of my favorite black and white photography ever, but it is what we would refer to nowadays as a "slow burn." Which is also what you do with witches.

3. Burn Witch Burn (aka Night of the Eagle) (1962, dir. Sidney Hayers)
I only saw Burn Witch Burn, a really cool and somewhat under-the-radar British horror movie, a few years ago as part of a 24-hour Massacre festival I attended. Though it may play to some like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, the movie -- which admittedly is a little stuffy -- has some interesting things to say about science vs. faith (a very common theme of these films) and looks at the domestic and gender issues so common to the genre in this period through the lens of a male protagonist, which at least affords it some novelty. And before you say "that's ridiculous, we don't need a film that examines the plight of women through a male character," I agree. I also think Burn Witch Burn has more on its mind and is more hopeful than, say, Season of the Witch (appearing a little further down the list), as it suggests that a man might come to his senses and learn to listen to his partner instead of being a pompous douche.

4. Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) (1968, dir. Michael Reeves)
Of all Vincent Price's nearly 200 TV and film credits, his performance in Witchfinder General is his best (again, of the ones I've seen) and completely different from what we traditionally think of as a Vincent Price performance. He plays a somewhat fictionalized of real-life asshole Matthew Hopkins, who tears through the English countryside raping and murdering women in the name of keeping the world safe from witchcraft. Price and director Reeves (who directed only a couple of movies and died of a drug overdose at age 25) reportedly hated one another and fought constantly during production, but it's hard to argue with the results. This is a great film and one which really brings home the horror of the 17th century "witch hunts" we hears so often used as a metaphor but into which we rarely have any real insight. A proper version of the movie was difficult to come by for years in the US, finally getting a DVD release in the mid-2000s; it's available as part of Scream Factory's first Vincent Price Collection box set.

5. Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives) (1973, dir. George A. Romero)
Possibly George Romero's least-seen film (with the exception of There's Always Vanilla) casts Jan White as a housewife married to an asshole named Jack (the original title of the film was Jack's Wife) who, bored and ignored, begins dabbling in witchcraft in 1970s suburbia. Needless to say it opens up some new doors for her. Of all the movies on this list, Season of the Witch might be the strongest on "witches as metaphor," but it works because of the period and because Romero is such a political filmmaker. The movie is messy and has long stretches of "70s indie movie" tedium, but the messages it's going for come through strong enough to warrant inclusion on the list.

6. Inferno (1980, dir. Dario Argento)
Each of Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy qualifies as a witch movie, and while Suspiria is the more obvious choice and arguably the better movie, I want to show Inferno some love. The second film in the trilogy, Inferno follows a man (Leigh McCloskey) who goes looking for his sister (Irene Miracle, later of Puppet Master) in New York only to discover her apartment building was once home to a witch. The movie makes about as much narrative sense as Argento's other supernatural films -- which is to say not much -- but it's so compelling in its weirdness and so gorgeous to look at, soaked in primary reds and blues. The look of the movie gives passion to the nightmares, and what might otherwise become nonsense (and to many still is) instead becomes hypnotic. Plus, if you've got anything against cats this is the movie for you.

7. The Woods (2006, dir. Lucky McKee)
I only recently really came around on this movie, having revisited it last fall for a review and realizing that I had been wrong to dismiss it a decade ago just because it wasn't May. It's not trying to be May. Despite not having written the script and running into interference with the studio, Lucky McKee still made this a Lucky McKee movie: the dreamy pop montages, the female protagonists attempting to navigate a world that is inherently hostile toward them, the shocking moments of violence. The atmosphere is really cool and while the witch stuff doesn't work as well as some of the buildup -- like a lot of horror movies, the explanations tend to disappoint -- this is such a better movie than I once gave it credit for being. I'm a huge fan of Lucky McKee and have become a big fan of this film.

8. The Lords of Salem (2013)
Rob Zombie is a very, very polarizing filmmaker, but even his most vocal critics could at least admit that he was trying...something with The Lords of Salem, his modern-day tale of witches and Satanists and women compelled to rise up and murder after hearing a (very creepy and effective) song on the radio. Zombie is channeling Fulci and Lynch and Ken Russell but still making something that feels like a Rob Zombie movie, and while it's still not his best work (that honor belongs to The Devil's Rejects), it's his most ambitious and interesting and the one that suggest the greatest potential for him to grow and do something different. It's kind of a bummer, I guess, that his next movie 31 sounds like Rob Zombie porn. I'm still excited to see it (because I'm a fan), but I'd rather he build on the surreal dread he achieves in Lords of Salem. I really like this movie.

9. Witching and Bitching (2013, dir. Álex de la Iglesia)
Let's end with what has to be the craziest movie on a list that includes a lot of crazy movies. Like a lot of witch movies, de la Iglesia's film boils down to a battle of the sexes, here mocking his male protagonists for being perpetually dissatisfied but basically being jackasses themselves. The women are turned into cartoons and the longer the movie goes the crazier it becomes -- eventually there's a giant in a cave, which isn't what you expect from the first 20 minutes. Also, Carolina Bang does a routine with a broom handle that's kind of like witch porn and alone makes the movie worth seeing. This one has a different energy than every other film on the list. It's not an energy that's going to work for everyone, but I love that de la Iglesia takes the witch subgenre and spins it into something wholly inventive and wild.


  1. I am DISGUSTED by the lack of Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters on this list. I fear I must unsubscribe and leave several negative reviews on iTunes.

  2. "It's great!" "It's terrible!" - The Internet

    1. Come on Rik, stop Witching and Bitching ;)
      Just have a joke of course

  3. Besides the "newer" sub-genres of torture porn, found footage and home invasion, I too consider the "witch" Horror sub-genre one of my least favorites. This list is pretty strong. As you mention, "Suspiria" would be the obvious go to so I appreciated the love for "Inferno". Although I still have yet to see Ken Russel's "The Devils" (I know, I suck) I have heard great things about that one. One of my favorite "witches" is Diane Ladd as Marietta in "Wild at Heart".

  4. Ancestors came before you, descendants come afterwards. Just sayin'.

  5. The lords of Salem is very very very bad. Everything that can go wrong about a movie happens there.

  6. I love "Inferno", but I love cats too!

  7. Thanks for this Patrick! It is hard to filter out which witch movies or books to seek put. As a massive fan of the figure and hostory of the witch, I always love it when they get it right.