Witchcraft and witches have been a favorite subject of films ever since the silent era. Witches secretly mask themselves in normalcy while deviously undermining society, orthodox religion, and free will.
Generally, films about witches fall into two general categories: those that believe in witches, and those that view witchcraft as a symptom of sexual repression.
Here are seven films about witches and witchcraft that should be screened.
Day of Wrath (1943) Denmark
The first thing we hear is the urgent chiming of church bells. Our view widens to reveal a stark 17th century Danish village. An old woman tries to escape, but she is cornered and captured. She screams like a beast.
Absalon, a rigid but compassionate Christian Minister interrogates the old woman, begs her, orders her to admit that she is a witch. The old woman reminds Absalon that the only reason he has a young and beautiful wife, Anne, is because she agreed to marry him only if he would protect her mother from charges of witchcraft.
The old woman is burned as a witch in a scene of such veracity that in each viewing of the film I actually curl up in my seat and shiver.
Absalon’s grown son Martin returns home from Seminary and meets Anne, his young and beautiful stepmother. Tragically, inevitably, Martin and Anne fall in love.
In the end, Anne, like her mother, is accused of witchcraft, and in one of the most powerful and tragic scenes ever filmed, this desolate young woman is left isolated in the frame, and so vast is her loneliness, so great her confusion, that indeed she has become convinced that she is a witch.
Director Carl Dreyer’s work stretched from the silent into the sound era. His most famous film is the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), another film about a woman falsely accused of witchcraft. Dreyer was, if anything, consistent in his artistic obsessions. DVD
The Seventh Victim (1943) America
Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) stumbles on an underground cult of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village, while searching for her missing sister.
Producer Val Lewton was one of the most unusual and talented producers in the studio system. His theory of horror was quite simple: what you don’t see is far more frightening than anything that can be conjured on the silver screen. Hence, Lewton’s movies are filled with evocative images that prey and linger in the mind long after the film is over. The Seventh Victim has one of the bleakest endings I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie, but Lewton always resolved his films with refreshing if brutal honesty. Vudu
Bell, Book, & Candle (1958)
A Greenwich Village witch (Apparently, Hollywood interpreted the Beats as a supernatural phenomenon) Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), develops a crush on publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart), when he enters her African art gallery. When she learns he is about to marry an old college enemy, Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), Gillian takes revenge by casting a love spell on Shep.
Eventually, Gillian falls for him beyond her magic spell. And she must make a choice between love and duty because witches who fall in love lose their witchy powers. Based on a play of the same name, Bell, Book & Candle is a comedy with a dark undertone. Sensually cuddling her pet cat and cocking a single eyebrow, Kim Novak inhabits the role as completely as she did her dual roles in Vertigo, in which she also cast a spell on James Stewart. DVD
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) a loving young couple move into the Bramford apartment building (the Dakota, where John Lennon was murdered) in New York City. Guy is a struggling actor desperate to make it. Rosemary and Guy want to have a baby, but on the night they decide to conceive, Rosemary passes out and dreams that she is being taken by Satan. When she wakes up she discovers scratches on her body and Guy sheepishly confesses that he made love to her when she was unconscious.
Director Roman Polanski’s first American blockbuster is an adaptation of Ira Levin’s best selling book. Polanski turned the joy of pregnancy into a meditation on the nature of evil. A brilliant and disturbing film. Google Play
Starry Eyes (2014) America
Sarah (Alex Essoe) another actor desperate to become a famous movie star, is stuck waitressing at a fast-food restaurant. Like thousands of other hopefuls in Los Angeles, she goes out on brutal casting sessions where she is humiliated by stone-faced casting agents and self-important producers. In shame and fury, Sarah retreats to bathroom stalls where she literally pulls out clumps of hair.
Finally, Sarah seems to catch a break. She is up for the lead in a horror film being produced by a legit indie company. But the price for getting the lead is a bit high. Starry Eyes (a crowd-sourced funded movie) views Hollywood as a horror story where fame and fortune are purchased by selling one’s soul to witches who assume the guise of producers.
Whereas Rosemary’s Baby dwelled on the creepiness of the seemingly normal, Starry Eyes posits a bloody ghoulishness that is the foundation for Hollywood glitz. Lead actress Alex Essoe is a compelling presence and she should become a star—without selling her soul. Warning: the violence in this film is graphic and is not for the faint of heart. Amazon Prime.
The VVitch (2015) America/Canada
In 1630s New England, pious farmer William is banished from a Puritan village along with his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas, due to a difference in interpretation of the Bible. The family builds a farm by the edge of a dark, secluded forest. Katherine soon gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel.
One day, Thomasin, (the superb Anya Taylor-Joy), is playing peekaboo with baby Samuel when he abruptly vanishes. Was the baby taken by a hungry wolf or was it witchcraft?
From this terrifying incident, the rest of the film proceeds to a deeply creepy and effective vision of the disintegration of the family unit. Fear, suspicion, and true witchcraft weave a net of evil that tightens fatally around each family member. And there is Black Phillip, the family goat, who seems as possessed as the rest of the family. The dialogue is period accurate and only adds to a feeling of terrible authenticity. Amazon Prime.
The Devil’s Bride (2016) Finland.
Based on the witch hunts in Finland during the 1600s, a 16-year-old girl, Anna (Tuulia Eloranta) falls in love with a handsome fisherman who is married to her friend, Rakel. At the same time a ruthless and self-described “modern, scientific” judge comes to the remote island village to stamp out superstition and the witches who lurk in the shadows.
Angry and jealous, Anna accuses Rakel of witchcraft. Soon, more village women are accused and arrested. When one of the accused is sentenced to beheading and then burned at the stake, Anna regrets her lies against Rakel.
Finally, Anna confesses, saying the Devil is hard to recognize, and that he makes you “howl like a bitch” before making you fly. The film recalls Day of Wrath, but writer director Saara Cantell sees witchcraft only as a social and religious pathology. Ultimately, The Devil’s Bride is a powerful meditation on guilt and conscience. Netflix.