One of civilization’s oldest fears is that of the unknown. Whatever lurks in the darkness pales in comparison to what we think might lurk in the darkness. And when Europeans came to this country, God-Fearing, the lot of them, they were confronted by a people they didn’t understand, and a forest, the likes of which they’d never seen before—dark and shrouded as it was. Is it any wonder that within a generation of these pilgrims touching down, there emerged the first stories of “the witch of the woods?” We showed up scared and have been in a state of fear ever since. But scared of what? Of women? Of nature? Of the devil? If you were in Salem, back in the day, they were all one and the same.
Movies about witches and witchcraft are perennially popular, but that’s mostly because they are the same story, often played for laughs, as these women with magical powers help the men in their lives either thwart evil or perpetrate it, by degrees. It’s peculiar to me how many witchcraft movies are some iteration of that basic premise. Lots of things happen in schools, by the way. I’m sure there’s a message in there, somewhere.
When movies about witchcraft are scary, they are terrifying. The alternative is something usually south of Bewitched and North of The Witches of Eastwick. Fun movies all, by the way, and certainly, witches usually fall under the “Most Fun Classic Monster” category, thanks to Halloween. However, I like my witches mysterious and weird and scary and “Oh, that’s not Right.”
5. Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962)
Peter Wyngarde plays Norman Taylor, a popular psychology professor at a small college who is the toast of the campus. One day he comes across some weird things in his wife’s underwear drawer and confronts her about them. Turns out, she’s got a bunch of charms she’s been using to keep evil forces at bay. Since Norman is a rationalist, he berets her until she agrees to let him destroy all of her totems. The very next day, he’s accused of raping a female student. That young woman’s fiancée tries to beat him up. He nearly buys the farm in a near-miss head on car collision. And then that night, someone or something tries to break into his house in the midst of a raging storm. Crazy stuff. However, his wife, Tansy, thinks that the only way to save him is to sacrifice herself, literally, to what? The power of witchcraft? When Taylor finds out about it, the only way to save her is to turn to the thing he has no belief in whatsoever.
Fritz Lieber is probably best known for his sword and sorcery heroes Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (as well as being the guy who coined the phrase “sword and sorcery”), but he was also a horror writer of no mean skill. His first novel, Conjure Wife, was published in 1943 in hardback form and was made into a movie the very next year. In fact, Conjure Wife would be made into a movie three times: in 1944, as the Inner Sanctum Mystery B-movie Weird Woman; in 1962 as Night of the Eagle; and in 1980 as Hocus Pocus, starring Richard Benjamin and Teri Garr, just to give you an idea of the tonal shift. The American name for Night of the Eagle is Burn, Witch, Burn! a far more groovy title for the mid-century sophisticates. It’s the best version of Conjure Wife, though that’s more of a backhanded compliment, despite a credible and creepy screenplay by Twilight Zone alumni Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson at the height of their screenwriting chops. It delivers the goods in a manner reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People or other Val Lewton classics where the story and the mood trumps all.
There’s a lot of psychological agony in this movie, as characters writhe and flail about in the throes of their difficult choices. There’s also great camera work, some simple but mostly effective special effects, and a cast that really sells the secrets and lies and paranoia of both university politics and a secret cabal of witches trying to better the lives of their husbands. A patriarchal message, to be sure, but the women are in control for most of the movie, so it kind of evens out. Sort of. Kind of. While I won’t spoil it for you, the British title of the movie surely gives a big chunk of it away. But while the climax is downright nutty, it is also quite cool and reminiscent of a massive three-part episode of the classic Twilight Zone TV series, and I mean that in a good way. This is a great bloodless thriller in the macabre style of storytelling that actually holds up, though I suspect most members of Generation X will simply marvel at Peter Wyngarde minus his Klytus mask from Flash Gordon (1980) and enjoy his fevered performance.
4. The Woods (2006)
Set in 1965, we find Heather, a little troublemaker and fire-starter, on the way to an exclusive school for young women, out in some remote part of the country, called the Falburn Academy. The family is met by headmistress Mrs. Traverse, who takes Heather away and drops her into a tank of rigid discipline, proto-catholic uniforms, and mean girls picking on the new kid. Heather befriends one of the misfits, Marcy, and they keep their head down even as other misfit kids are disappearing from their bunks at night, leaving only a pile of leaves. When the black blood and the nightmares come out, it’s pretty creepy, but not so creepy as the sentient fog and killer vines, and of course, latent psychic talents.
These seemingly familiar plot devices get a nice spit and polish from director Lucky McKee, along with some impressive performances from the young women and some skilled turns from the adults. Good music, good effects, and a lovely turn from Bruce Campbell as Heather’s dad adds to the quality of the movie, which seems quietly intent on sincerely flattering films like Suspiria and Carrie without stooping to imitation.
This hard-to-find film festival darling was McKee’s follow-up to his 2002 cult favorite debut May. Despite good reviews, it went straight to video and is something of a diamond in the rough. I really liked it; I thought it was a cool twist on what we can see from this list alone has become something of a cliché’ when writing modern witch movies. I’m not sure why this didn’t do better, or become more of a favorite. I like the druidic angle on the “witch of the woods” story, and putting a bunch of young girls together in a sequestered academy and not caving into prurient instincts is a masterful and welcome conceit.
3. Black Sunday (1960)
The movie opens in 1630, where a witch named Asa and her creepy lover, Javuto, are sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft by Asa’s brother. As a parting shot, Asa swears revenge and curses her brother’s house. Not to be outdone, her brother hammers a metal mask with spikes inside, like an iron maiden, onto her face. Since they can’t bury her, they stick her in the family crypt, surrounded by crosses and other protections. Cut to 200 years later as Dr. Thomas Kruvajan is traveling through Moldavia on the way to a medical conference when their carriage breaks down…right next to the ancient tomb where Asa is being kept. Through a series of mishaps that can’t be accidental, but could certainly be the height of Deus Ex Machian coincidence, the good doctor smashes all of the protections keeping Asa in her place, and drips blood on her face.
Okay, if you’re still with me, the rest of the movie earns its reputation quite honestly. There is a lot of grim and horrific and violent and just plain weird goings on in Black Sunday, and much of it is centered around Barbara Steele in the dual roles of Katia Vajda and the witch Asa. Her performance in this movie put her on the map, and set her up in a number of horror roles where she played wide-eyed menaces from the grave. This was Italian director Mario Bava’s initial horror movie offering and Steele, barely out of the Sorbonne, was as difficult to work with as Bava was. But their clashes and the undoubtedly alien atmosphere of the Italian film shoot helped fuel a histrionic performance that is truly unsettling.
Black Sunday was sold and distributed by several names, including the evocative Mask of Satan. Widely considered to be one of the best horror movies of the twentieth century by horror connoisseurs, this film has gained quite the reputation for being influential and ground-breaking in terms of art direction, camera work, and of course, pushing the envelope for gruesome and gory sensationalist fare. The movie was shot in black and white and the “gore” is tame by any modern standard, but the movie still brings the creepy, despite the mediocre dubbing. Black Sunday was controversial for the amount of gore and grue in the film; it was banned for three years in the UK, and along the way it was cut and re-edited three times. These various prints were eventually leavened together into the authoritative cut now available on blu ray. The black and white film stock does not render any of the depravities heaped upon Asa and her vampiric minions any less horrific, and it’s easy to see why this movie, at the time, was something of a scandal. It’s also obvious that it would jump start the Italian Gothic horror style of filmmaking that will lead straight to Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Sometimes the classics deserve their reputation.
2. Suspiria (1977)
Jessica Harper, on the rebound from working with Brian De Palma on his cult classic Phantom of the Paradise (1974) plays a young ballerina sent to a famous dance academy in Germany. She arrives in the middle of a driving thunderstorm and right away, the weirdness begins as she encounters the girl whose place she is taking, fleeing the academy in a panic. The following day, she is admitted into the school and quickly runs afoul of mean girls, strict teachers, and oh yeah, she’s now getting sick and people connected with the school are also being murdered. In between trying to keep her strength up, Harper goes Nancy Drew to figure out what’s going on and discovers the hidden history of the academy and its inhabitants.
This was not the first Dario Argento movie I saw, but it’s the one that really stands out for me as being the most Dario Argento of all of the Dario Argento movies out there; it’s basically an Argento’s Greatest Hits Tour, featuring an intense, throbbing, percussive soundtrack from Goblin, intense, saturated, migraine-inducing colors and camera angles, and lots of horrible people doing horrible things to virginal and innocent women. That Argento’s bag of tricks does not play well in the twenty-first century takes nothing away from the power of this movie and its ability to shock and disturb in equal measure. Suspiria is now considered the beginning of his “Three Mothers” cycle of movies (Inferno  and The Mother of Tears  are the other two that complete the trilogy), but you are under no obligation to seek out the other two films. While some of his choices are questionable, to say the least, his idea of witches is novel, owing to his wide range of influences. The screenplay is based on Argento’s ideas, theories and beliefs in the occult, and the writings of Rudolf Steiner and Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test; just know that when the blind piano player’s dog is ripping his throat out in the public square that the movie you’re watching was a stew of influences that included gothic architecture, the color palette of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The end result creates a nightmarish, almost stream-of-consciousness kind of narrative that is both abstract in its use of color, light and shadow, and sound, and stylistic and almost intentionally unreal in execution, like the best nightmares.
1. The Witch (2015)
Paster William and his family are forced out of their Puritan settlement because William has some radical—meaning different—ideas about the Bible. His family of children and nervous wife have made a homestead for themselves at the edge of a primeval forest and there they hunt and gather wood and tend to animals and in the case of the mother, have more kids. The oldest girl, Thomasin, loses her infant brother during a game of peek-a-boo. What happens next becomes a game of trying to find rational explanations for what is going on, even as the family is coming apart at the seams as they look for the supernatural in their everyday lives.
The Witch benefits from you not knowing too much about it when you see it. Instead, you need to know this: the movie is dark, saturated, and deliberately slow in pace. It’s as historically accurate as first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers could make it. And I think that use of realism and folklore, especially when so many other films on this list in particular take a pop cultural approach to witchcraft that they, in part, helped contribute to, is refreshing and also adds to the scares. It’s an alien world, this New World, circa 1630s, and for the first time ever, we are also looking at the forest as the Outer Darkness, where real horror dwells. The first half of The Witch makes a conscious effort to take apart the “mysteries” that we know, as rational modern people, aren’t anymore more than natural phenomena. The second half of the movie takes all of that work you did and shows you how wrong, so very wrong, you are. It’s hard to think that seventeenth century homestead could contain that much horror, but it does, and moreover, you can easily see how these simple people showed up afraid and stayed that way. This quiet, creepy, and completely terrifying historical horror story is my new favorite for all of the reasons I just listed and a few others I can’t tell you about, as it would give the surprises away. But if you have not seen this one yet, you want to be sure you’re in the right frame of mind, or it will keep you up all night.