By Alan Hurst
Witches have always intrigued me. Whether it was watching the TV series Bewitched as a kid, touring the sites of Salem, Massachusetts (home of the infamous Salem witch trials) on a road trip, reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in school, or a first viewing of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the mere idea of the existence of these creatures with their supernatural powers had me hooked. I’m not sure why – I don’t know whether I necessarily believe in them per se, but I guess I like believing in the idea of them.
With Halloween upon us here are 10 films featuring a witch as a central character that deserve attention.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
The image of Margaret Hamilton transforming from the nasty Miss Gulch in the Wicked Witch of the West during the cyclone is one of the many indelible images from MGM’s expert adaption of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”. Hamilton, with the assistance of an expert make-up and costume team, created an image of a witch that dominates most of our imaginations to this day. At once terrifying and amusing, ugly, smart with single-minded focus, Hamilton scared the crap of moviegoers in 1939 and has continued to do that to multiple generations ever since. The film itself is a near perfect musical fantasy, one of the crowing achievements in that terrific year of movies. The film is synonymous with Judy Garland and her performance as Dorothy, but providing all the drama and the suspense was Hamilton in a superb performance as the Wicked Witch. Just compare her creation with the sweetly annoying Glinda (Billie Burke). It’s no contest – Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is much more fascinating.
I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)
This is one of the brightest comedies of the 1940’s, and a lightly spooky spin on witches versus mortals that helped inspire Bewitched 20 plus years later. It’s the story of a 17th century Salem era witch named Jennifer (Veronica Lake) who is burned at the stake along with her father. Before they die, Jennifer casts a spell on her accuser and his descendants, condemning them to unhappy romances for all eternity. A few hundred years later she is brought back to life and is determined to get more revenge, but ends up falling in love with one of the descendants (Fredric March) of her original accuser. This is a very funny film, thanks to the deft direction of Rene Clair and a witty screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly that dials up the screwball quotient to smart effect. There’s also Veronica Lake who is remembered today primarily for her sultry femme fatales in a series of film noirs in the 1940’s. Here she proves herself to be a stellar comedienne as Jennifer – the pretty, temperamental, conniving witch. It’s Lakes energetic work that helps drive the film. March does well as the object Jennifer’s anger (and then love) and Susan Hayward is great as March’s fiance, but this is Lake’s film all the way.
BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)
Filmed after their initial and history making pairing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), this glossy, glamourous comedy (another inspiration for Bewitched) again successfully paired Kim Novak and James Stewart. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a beautiful, mysterious witch living in Greenwich Village. She meets Stewart, who plays a publisher, and he’s engaged to an annoying nemesis of Gillian’s. She casts a spell on Stewart to make him fall in love with her, but then she starts falling for him. There’s only one catch – if she truly does love him, she loses her powers. Based on a hit Broadway play by John Van Druten, this is a quirky and entertaining comedy with Novak’s usual onscreen awkwardness working to her advantage here. The character is bored and at loose ends and Novak makes you feel that. Novak was an actress who always seemed uncomfortable with her beauty which, in the right role, made her even more appealing. The stylish film was directed by Richard Quine, and includes a terrific supporting cast: Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lemmon as Novak’s warlock brother, and especially Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester as pair of eccentric witches. The dazzling color photography is by James Wong Howe.
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Creepy, scary, and very gruesome fare for 1960, Black Sunday goes to the dark side with this tale of vengeance and revenge. This was director Mario Bava’s first film, and it’s his best – a perfect example of Gothic horror that stays with you well past an initial viewing. Like some other films on the list, this one starts with the execution of a witch (the beautiful Barbara Steele) and her lover and they put a curse on their killers. The killing ends with Steel being trapped – very graphically – in a spiked mask and entombed in a mausoleum. A couple of hundred years later, she is released from the tomb and starts seeking her revenge on the descendants of those who wronged her. Steele plays dual roles here – the witch and a beautiful relative when the film moves ahead. She’s stunning to watch. When the film was released, it came under harsh criticism for its violence and frank sexuality. There were major cuts in the North American release, and it was banned in Britain for years. Thankfully the full film is now available on Blu Ray and it’s a beautiful transfer. The eerie black and white cinematography heightens the suspense and the horror – particularly when things move to a sinister old castle.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
From a first viewing in the late 1970’s and then multiple viewings since, no other film of the horror/suspense genre has ever had the impact on me that Rosemary’s Baby has. It was a big hit when it came out in 1968 and it sill holds up today. It’s a relatively straightforward story, but well structured with a strong screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel and filled with subtle layers and clues that become clear with additional viewings. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are a young married couple who decide to move into a wonderfully atmospheric old New York apartment building (the Dakota was used for the filming). It’s filled with a dark history and a bevy of eccentrics. Guy (John Cassavetes) is an aspiring actor and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) a stay-at-home wife. They soon become friendly with the older couple next door (a perfect Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). The couple are not what they seem – and the ever-increasing threat of Satanism and modern-day witches begins to consume Rosemary as she becomes pregnant with her first child. Produced by B-horror movie maven William Castle, Rosemary’s Baby could easily have been another B film. But thankfully Paramount Studios put some money behind it and brought in Polanski and a cast of lesser known but wonderful actors. There are so many reasons this film works as well as it does: the performances, the setting, the look – it all works. But it’s Polanski’s layered, precision-like direction and his willingness to take some time to let the audience – and Rosemary – figure things out that elevates the terror lurking right next door.
BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971)
It would have been very logical to cast Julie Andrews in this Disney musical. It reunited many of the creative team from Mary Poppins (1964) and at least one cast member, but Andrews was pulling back from her film career around this time, so Angela Lansbury was wisely brought in to play Eglantine Price, a very British witch-in-training. Set on the coast of England during the Battle of Britain in World War II, Bedknobs and Broomsticks follows Lansbury, three children in her care (evacuated from London because of the Blitz) and the head of her witch training school (David Tomlinson) as they travel underwater and through the skies looking for the other half of a spell to deal with the Nazis. The musical numbers here are serviceable, but not the calibre of Mary Poppins. Where the film does succeed is in the final act when hundreds of suits of armor come to life to battle the Germans thanks to Lansbury’s magic. The special effects – combined with the dark night setting and an old castle – make for a spooky and satisfying climax. The sequence assured the film’s Oscar win for Best Visual Effects.
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
Writer John Updike’s tale of female empowerment was better than the film. In the novel the three central characters were more in charge of their own growing magical powers – they didn’t need the stranger coming to town to help them discover it. Director George Miller and screen writer Michael Cristofer took the essence of the story of the friendship of three divorced women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer), elevated the character of Daryl (Jack Nicholson) to Satan-like status and capped it with a special effects driven climax that was as spectacular as it was confusing. What makes this film work are the performances of the three female leads and their discovery of their powers, their jealousy and ultimate camaraderie. They’re all good, but Cher is the standout as the no-nonsense Alexandra. Nicholson is entertaining, but this one is all about the ladies.
HOCUS POCUS (1993)
When it was released in the summer of 1993, Hocus Pocus received mixed reviews and did middling business. But thanks to annual showings on television and release on DVD it has become a Halloween staple. What A Christmas Story is to Christmas, Hocus Pocus is now to Halloween. The movie is a bit of mess, the special effects a little less than state-of-the-art (remember it was made at the same time as Jurassic Park), but director Kenny Ortega still manages to give us an atmospheric, mostly amusing look at a Halloween night in Salem. The film begins in the late 17th century with the hanging of three witches – the Sanderson sisters – and has the trio resurrected in 1993 to wreak chaos on the town and to suck the life out of children so they can live forever. This is all presented in a very child friendly way, but there is also enough camp to keep the adults interested thanks to the trio of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson sisters. Midler uses every delicious trick in her arsenal as Winifred – this is one of her funniest performances and she also delivers a knock-out cover of “I Put a Spell on You”, with Parker and Najimy as her back-up. It’s best scene in the movie.
PRACTICAL MAGIC (1998)
Another case of the book was better, but if you are able to accept the changes and the watering down of Alice Hoffman’s novel, this is an enjoyable look at modern day witches with a spectacular cast. Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock lead the charge as two sisters – one is buttoned down and does the right thing (Bullock), the other is the more free spirited of the pair, but prone to impulsive and dangerous liaisons (Kidman). We meet the two as they move in with their Aunts (the wonderful Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest) after the death of their parents (another long standing curse). The two sisters go their own way for a while, but after the death of Bullock’s husband (that curse!), she helps Kidman get away from an abusive boyfriend by killing him. But is he really dead? And what will happen to the dreamy police officer (Aidan Quinn) who shows up looking for the dead boyfriend? There’s a quaint town, a beautiful old home, lots of candles, magic, incantations and a positive sense of female empowerment that culminates with an homage to Mary Poppins’ flights of fancy with her umbrella. And, of course, there is also Wiest and Channing and their impeccable comic timing.
THE WITCH (2016)
When I first saw the trailer for the The Witch, I watched it with dread – this took scary to a new level for me. When I saw the film, my fears were justified. This is a slow moving, suspenseful, and very realistic telling of a witch story set in New England years before the Salem witch trials. A proud, pious father gets his family exiled from the community because of his beliefs, and they are forced to carve out a life and livelihood deep in the woods. The mother soon gives birth to another child and the newborn boy is abducted while in the care of their teenage daughter. The abduction scene is shocking because there is no one around for miles. Only the mystery of the dark woods. From there the paranoia builds, the family falls apart, and things build to a visually stunning climax. There are no cheap thrills here – just a well-structured story and an increasing sense of dread. Directed by Robbert Eggers, the film was well received by critics, but it didn’t draw the audience it deserved. Do yourself a favour and give it a try this Halloween. But not alone.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.