Jan 31, 2014

13 Wickedest Witch Movies

Article By: Tony Timpone

From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, from Bewitched to American Horror Story: Coven (which wrapped up its FX run on January 29), witches remain a staple of fantasy entertainment. Not all Wiccans are Earth-worshipping hippies or nose-wiggling sitcom housewives. Black witches, at least those in the movies, use their powers to seduce the unwary, curse rivals or raise the Devil himself. So for those who want their witches fearsome and not Sabrina cutesy, today Chiller cooks up a cauldron-full of scary movies where sorceresses cast their arcane spells for evil purposes. Not a Disney hag in the bunch. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)

1. Horror Hotel AKA The City of the Dead (1960)

On the urging of professor Christopher Lee, a beautiful college student (actress Venetia Stevenson, who later married one of the Everly Brothers) travels to the foreboding New England town of Whitewood to research early witchcraft. Just as she hits the books, a reincarnated coven of Devil worshippers promptly sacrifice her. Brother and beau trace her disapperance, but can they stop more blood from being spilt on the ceremonial altar? Directed by John Moxey (who later helmed the first Kolchak movie, The Night Stalker) rates as a wonderfully creepy horror yarn (all shot on soundstages). The suspenseful ending, in which a fatally wounded hero wields a giant cross to vanquish the evildoers, still thrills.

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2. Black Sunday (1960)

British-born actress Barbara Steele set fright fans’ hearts aflutter with her hypnotic performance as Asa, a centuries-old witch, in this classic Italian horror film from maestro Mario Bava. Accompanied by a vampire henchman (!), Asa returns to slaughter the descendents of those who gruesomely executed her in the film’s shocking prologue, in which a witch hunter hammers a spiked mask onto her face (Tim Burton paid homage to this scene in Sleepy Hollow). Furthermore, once revived, Asa sets out to steal the identity of her modern-day lookalike (also Steele). Visual stylist Bava plies Black Sunday thick with an eerie, dream-like ambiance. No wonder the film continues to place high as one of the greatest Italian horror films of all time.

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3. Burn, Witch Burn AKA Night of the Eagle (1962)

Classic Twilight Zone writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont faithfully adapted the popular Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife into this intelligent and adult horror movie. With much dismay, college professor and supernatural doubter Peter Wyngarde learns that wife Janet Blair has been secretly practicing witchcraft to protect him and advance his career. After he pig-headedly destroys her talismans, bad things start to happen, such as when a giant stone eagle comes to life (at the behest of a rival witch) and attacks him during the film’s exciting climax. This British gem deserves more attention.

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4. Rosemary's Baby (1968)

In real life, Mia Farrow may not know who’s the daddy of son Rowan (Frank Sinatra or Woody Allen?), but there’s no question who spawned her child in Roman Polanski’s classic horror film—it’s Satan, egged on by an insidious coven of Manhattan witches. Whereas past cinematic witches usually came from Eastern Europe, rode brooms and sported warts on their faces, the spellcasters in Rosemary’s Baby turn out to be the nosey yentas next door. This brilliant stroke of modernity by original author Ira Levin and Polanski brought the horror home to audiences like no other fright film before it. And yes, that’s Farrow herself singing the film’s haunting lullaby over the opening credits.

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5. Witchfinder General AKA Conqueror Worm (1968)

Minus the camp, Vincent Price delivered his most chilling performance as real-life 17th century witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, who traveled the English countryside falsely accusing people of witchcraft. Their penalty: torture and death. Growing richer by the body, Hopkins’ scheme comes undone when a heroic soldier (actor Ian Ogilvy, once a contender for James Bond) takes him to task—with an ax. Witchfinder General (saddled with the Conqueror Worm title by US distributor AIP to milk an unnecessary Poe association) paints a truly grim picture of mankind. Equally sad, the film’s promising director, Michael Reeves, died of a drug overdose at age 25. Ironically, the real Hopkins died in his 20s too.

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6. The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

If all witches were as sexy as Blood on Satan’s Claw enchantress Linda Hayden, you’d be joining their cult too. The actress portrays Angel Blake, a 17th century lass up to no good in an English village, where she seduces the local priest (in his church, no less) and inducts the children into her coven. Claw’s extreme content (a girl has “Satan’s skin” sliced from her leg in close-up; the finale’s satanic orgy) drew considerable attention, though the film’s most overlooked element is its seductive score by Marc Wilkinson. Give a listen.

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7. Suspiria (1977)

The career of Dario Argento, once dubbed “the Italian Hitchcock,” peaked with this, his sixth and scariest film. Jessica Harper (today an author of children’s books) stars as an American ballet student who travels to a European academy and uncovers a nest of vicious witches. Co-written by Daria Nicolodi (Argento’s ex-girlfriend, whose own nightmares inspired the screenplay), Suspiria assaults our senses with vibrant colors (mostly red), a jolting sound design and a pounding musical score (by Argento and band Goblin). Suspiria’s influence continues to be felt today, from music videos to Oscar-winning films like Black Swan. And what about the movie’s brutal murder scenes? Ouch!

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8. Warlock (1991)

Riddick creator David Twohy penned this cat-and-mouse thriller about a witch (Julian Sands) from 1600s Boston who escapes to 1980s Los Angeles, pursued by a resolute witch hunter (Richard E. Grant). The warlock attempts to locate the missing chapters to the Devil’s Bible so he can ultimately bring about Armageddon (what else?). Warlock copies the time-traveling Terminator formula, but comes up with enough variations to make the plot fly. The no-nonsense work of committed thespians Sands and Grant (both terrific as the battling leads) adds further spice to the pot.

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9. The Craft (1996)

Before teen witches became a staple of TV genre shows, The Craft paved the way for babes messing with spells and potions. New kid in school Robin Tunney hooks up with three outcast classmates who utilize the occult to get ahead in class and score with boys. As their powers grow, lead witch Fairuza Balk (the actress reportedly a practicing Wiccan) embraces the dark side, leading to full-scale supernatural assaults with snakes and bugs, plus other mystical mischief. Who would’ve guessed that Catholic school could be this much fun? Screenwriter Peter (Flatliners) Filardi and director Andrew Fleming bring depth to their young sorceresses, adding an extra level of craft to The Craft.

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10. The Woods (2006)

In this unnoticed horror sleeper set in the ’60s, troubled and rebellious teen Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is shipped off to a remote boarding school for setting fire to her house. Rumors abound that witches run the spooky Falburn Academy, and the actions of the icy headmistress (Patricia Clarkson) do little to dispel the notion. Not to mention, the foreboding surrounding forest holds malevolent secrets of its own. Just when things get really dire, Heather’s dad (Evil Dead’s Ash, Bruce Campbell) arrives to save the day, swinging a trusty ax. As with his previous outings (May, The Woman, Sick Girl), director Lucky McKee displays a keen sensitivity to The Woods’ female characters. Look for more witchy weirdness from McKee (and co-director Chris Sivertson) this year with All Cheerleaders Die.

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11. Black Death (2010)

Set in the 1400s amidst the ravages of the bubonic plague, Christopher Smith’s Black Death follows a novice monk (Eddie Redmayne of Les Miserables) on a quest that will rock his religious convictions. The medieval monk is tasked to accompany a group of knights (lead by Game of Thrones’ Sean Bean, always good with a sword) to find out why an isolated town has not succumbed to the deadly outbreak. Could the place be a haven for witches, making infernal deals with Lucifer? The ambiguous Black Death forces us to witness the worst in human nature from both the witch hunters and the pagans, so the debate rages over the story’s true villains. Look for seductive Carice van Houten as the head lady witch, sort of a dry run for her current sorceries on Game of Thrones.

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12. The Lords of Salem (2012)

After his controversial Halloween reduxes, heavy-metal-god-turned-director Rob Zombie offered up The Lords of Salem, an unsettling and frightening movie. Wife/muse Sheri Moon Zombie stars as a Salem DJ who spins an unsolicited record on her radio show that puts her under a spell and reawakens a 400-year-old coven’s reign of terror. Film geek Zombie parades a steady stream of genre favorites in winning supporting roles, including original Willard Bruce Davison, E.T.’s Dee Wallace, Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Patricia Quinn and even Andrew Prine, the original Simon, King of Witches! This strange movie also benefits from authentic Massachusetts locations, moody photography and a psychedelic finish that appears inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey!

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13. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

While the movies previously depicted witch-slayers as bad guys (historically responsible for the deaths of at least 60,000 innocent people, mostly women), the titular executioners in this action-packed revisionist fairy tale turn out to be the good guys. The Grimm’s famous brother and sister team survived their nasty run-in with the witch all those years ago, and now the grown-up duo (played by Avengers’ Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) toil as guns for hire, committed to ridding the land of dastardly spellcasters. They face their toughest case in the form of child-napping superwitch Famke Janssen, who has a tie to the siblings’ painful past… Influenced by comic-books and Hong Kong martial arts flicks, Norwegian writer/director Tommy (Dead Snow) Wirkola makes Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters an entertaining romp that moves like a bullet. Foregoing CGI for more tactile prosthetics, Wirkola’s hideous witches will definitely get a rise out of your broomstick.

So which witch movies cast a spell on you? Hunt down a few more titles (or debate the ones listed here) and tell us on our Facebook page or on Twitter using #Friday13.

FANGORIA editor emeritus Tony Timpone will attend February’s Berlin International Film Festival and European Film Market in Germany.

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