Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
Rob Zombie has given us horror films about crazy redneck serial killers and his own take on the Michael Myers mythos, but his latest release – The Lords of Salem – finds the divisive filmmaker covering new ground: witchcraft.
Witches have long been a horror film staple – the evil crones (and their male warlock counterparts) turn up in some of the genre’s most beloved films. While the witch’s popularity has waned a bit in recent years (all of horror’s great archetypes have been pushed aside by the veritable avalanche of zombie and vampire features), there are a wealth of great films out there to revisit. Today we take a look at nine classic films featuring Satan’s favorite mistresses (and a few fellows as well).
The Blair Witch Project
Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s found-footage film will probably be the most debated entry on this list – if only because we never really see the title character, a mysterious witch said to haunt the woods surrounding Burkittsville, Maryland. Three young filmmakers go out into the wilds in search of this malevolent force and get far more than they bargained for in the process.
Myrick and Sanchez’s film benefited greatly from some early examples of viral marketing. The found-footage approach to the material had many people convinced that what they were watching was real, and while we never see the crone, she’s represented through a bunch of spooky looking stick figures hung throughout the woods. The Blair Witch Project made a ton of money upon its release, but then suffered an inevitable backlash that has left its cult-classic status up for debate even amongst hard-core horror fans. Personally, I still think it’s a very effective chiller.
The Wicker Man
Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror musical would suffer the indignity of a dreadful remake (starring Nicolas Cage), but that doesn’t lessen the power of the original. If you’ve never seen this creepy tale of pagans run amok, grab it posthaste.
Edward Woodward stars as a cop sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on a Scottish island – but the locals insist the girl never existed. Woodward’s investigation will uncover all sorts of strange happenings, before ending on one of horror cinema’s most iconic scenes.
While I’m not the hugest fan of The Wicker Man (I’ve never liked the musical numbers littered throughout the narrative – although calling this a musical in the traditional sense isn’t really an accurate description), it does feature great performances from Woodward and Hammer icon Christopher Lee – and the ending really does linger with you for years after the viewing. If you love this one, don’t miss out on Kill List – which feels almost like a spiritual sequel to Hardy’s classic.
This haunting exercise in style comes from Italian legend Mario Bava, and introduced the world to scream queen Barbara Steele.
When a vengeful witch is put to death, she returns from the grave in hopes of possessing her lovely (and innocent) descendant in Bava’s hazy, nightmarish narrative. Steele plays both roles with relish, and wound up at least somewhat typecast by her performances here. This was a victory for horror fans – we found another fabulous leading lady for genre efforts – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Steele could have been an even bigger star had she been able to break out of her genre pigeonholing and do mainstream films.
At any rate, Bava’s languid and beautiful cinematography perfectly complements Steele’s wide-eyed performance in this baroque masterpiece. Black Sunday is not only one of the finest witch films of all time, it played an important role in spawning the entire Italian horror film scene. This one is essential viewing even if you don’t particularly care about witches.
The newest film on the list, Christopher Smith’s 2010 chiller finds a young monk (Eddie Redmayne) tagging along with a band of knights (led by the inimitable Sean Bean) as they hunt down a witch they believe is raising the dead in a remote village.
Set against the backdrop of the first Bubonic Plague outbreak, Smith’s film leaves the audience guessing as to whether or not there’s a real witch causing the dead to walk. The ambiguity in the early stages eventually resolves itself, and the film becomes something really special once it does. Bean is perfectly cast (and like Barbara Steele, dangerously close to being typecast at this point…) as a take-no-prisoners knight dedicated to finding and eradicating witches. The period detail adds to the film’s ambience.
Not all of the great witchcraft films were actually about witches – more than a few focused on the evil forces behind the witch trials in Salem and across Europe – which brings us to Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General.
Vincent Price stars as Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins in this 1968 British production. Hopkins is a man who uses the witchcraft hysteria for his own benefit, traveling the country dealing with supposed “witches” while secretly becoming wealthy and using his perceived power for nefarious purposes.
Hopkins goes after the wrong person when he targets a priest, though, and the priest’s niece’s fiance (Ian Ogilvy) hunts him down at great personal risk. While there aren’t any real witches in this particular entry (which was retitled The Conqueror Worm in its American release to tie it in with the Poe films Price was doing with Roger Corman at the time), it’s still an interesting film in that it captures the insanity of the witch trials era quite nicely.
Mark of the Devil
This 1970 cult classic keeps with the same themes as Witchfinder General – it’s a tale focused on the immoral nature of the witch hunters as opposed to the actual witches themselves.
Michael Armstrong’s film has earned a reputation for being shockingly (for the time…) violent and gory. Herbert Lom plays a brutal witch hunter working for the church. Udo Kier serves as his apprentice, but soon becomes disillusioned when he realizes that Lom and the church are really using the witchcraft panic for their own benefit.
Mark of the Devil really loves to focus on the medieval torture methods used to get witches to confess – and at the time of its release, actually came with its very own barf bag… just in case all the torture was too much to bear. The film looks quaint by today’s standards, but it’s still an important entry in the witchcraft film canon.
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK
Ken Russell’s 1971 drama is arguably the most famous and revered film about witchcraft – a fantastically made period piece full of political intrigue, perversion and pretty much everything else you’d expect to find in a period movie about witch trials.
Cardinal Richlieu wants to take over the city of Loudon and only Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) stands in his path. When the priest doesn’t step aside, Richlieu cooks up some charges that Grandier is a witch (or in this case, a warlock…) overseeing a Satanic nunnery. Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) gives him all the ammo he needs…
The Devils is a beautifully made film filled with controversial imagery – but that’s hardly the only reason to see it. While some have labeled the title as blasphemous, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Russell’s film is essentially celebrating the power of faith and Christianity through Grandier. Genuinely an amazing film.
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent film was inspired by the director’s reading of the Malleus Maleficarum (the 15th century handbook for inquisitors looking to root out witches), and the Swedish/Danish production has the distinction of being the most expensive silent film made in Scandinavia. It’s also a documentary – with fictional re-creations that rivaled the straight horror films of the time.
Christensen’s film explored how witch hunts were often really inspired by a misunderstanding of mental illness, misinformation and hysteria. It features some graphic torture, violence and a fair amount of nudity for a film of the period – which led to it being banned and censored in many countries.
Broken up into four parts, the film is filled with genuinely striking re-creations of medieval life. While some of the information is woefully out of date, Haxan is still worth any witchcraft fanatic’s time.
For my money, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is the greatest film about witches ever made. Featuring a hazy, dreamlike narrative about a coven of witches who secretly run a German dance academy, Argento’s film is gorgeous visually even if it doesn’t always make sense in narrative terms.
The phantasmagorical film was inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s essay Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow, which posited that the world was secretly ruled by three wicked mothers. Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs) is the focus of this film. Argento would return to the tale of the Three Mothers with Inferno and Mother of Tears.
Suspiria benefits from Argento’s gorgeous direction (hints of German Expressionism abound in the camera setups and set design), lurid use of color, and unforgettable Goblin score. While the odd narrative rhythms might put off some American viewers, stick with it because Suspiria is an amazing piece of Italian horror cinema and makes for an interesting double bill when coupled with Bava’s Black Sunday.