Häxan (1922) This mad “doc” from director Benjamin Christensen declares early on that a belief in witchcraft and the like is naïve, only to go entirely insane with alive, wicked and, to this day, some of the most inspired depictions of past sorcerous misdeed. It’s a contradictory, metatextual affair—Christensen addresses behind the scenes discussions with actors that tie to witch confessions—that wants to state its case, but mostly have its fun. With stunning, shadowy and painterly presentation of black magick ritual, Häxan revels in the folkloric and superstitious. Its silent nature and concentration on visual construct often renders it pure cinema that’s captivating and mischievous and timeless.
I Married a Witch (1942) Who, may I ask, wouldn’t fall under Veronica Lake’s spell? René Clair’s silly, sweet, supernatural romance is a delightful affair of early special effects—one of which the infectious energy of Lake and Frederic March throughout—tying magick to the intoxicating haze of new and hopefully eternal love. Lake stars as a centuries-old witch attempting to seduce and ruin March for his ancestors’ crimes against her family. Too bad affection and attraction stand in the way.
Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn; 1962) Boasting a screenplay co-written by Richard Matheson, Sidney Hayers’ 1962 tale of campus conjuring is a classical whirlwind of horror, revenge and marital strife. There’s a sense of adventure in this story of a professor whose wife dabbles in witchcraft to protect his career from those that would take it from him. Norman is skeptical, and learns the hard way what happens when a charm and bond is broken. Nicely, Night of the Eagle ends up a fable of acceptance and going the distance for the one you love.
The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la Bruja; 1962) A classic in the rich history of Mexican horror film, director Chano Urueta’s old fashioned, elegantly staged Gothic terror is for a dark, stormy evening. Within a haunting manor resides a man, his wife and her foster mother, a witch. The witch enchants a mirror to protect the girl from her cruel husband. He still manages to kills his spouse and quickly remarries. Classical, shadowy revenge ensues.
Viy (1967) Konstantin Ershov and Georgi Kropachyov’s swift, utterly fantastical adaptation of Nikoali Gogol’s short story, Viy is filmed period folklore at its finest. A young seminary student must pray over a deceased witch’s body for three nights, each of which she sends hellish frights including her own resurrected body, monstrous minions and more. Viy is both an eerie and enchanting, colorful work of classic special effects.
The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968) This so cool, hallucinatory Japanese film (based on Kazuo Umezu’s manga and helmed by multiple Gamera film director Noriaka Yuasa) is ostensibly for children, but its black-and-white aesthetic and child’s eye view of psychotropic, dream assault nevertheless takes on unnerving atmosphere. The film sees a young girl taken from an orphanage and returned to her father’s home, where her disfigured stepsister awaits. Surprisingly grisly, the imagery on hand is utterly wild and a must-see for its skeletal crone, alone.
Witchcraft ’70 The second documentary to land here, Witchcraft ’70 is an ultra-fun faux Mondo look at witchcraft around the world, promising the “naked truth about the cults, covens (said like Mark Borchardt) and secret sects that still practice the Black Art in this modern age.” Crafted and cobbled by Luigi Scattini and Lee Frost (and narrated by Pieces’ Edmund Purdom), the film is meant to be a sort of fear-mongering expose, but is both far too goofy and decidedly not transgressive. With “secret footage” of satanic rites, appearances from Anton LaVey, kissing of the beast rituals, and stern sentences like, This. Is the Worship of the Devil, it kind of just ends up a celebration of rad shit. Put on Electric Wizard and hang.
Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) The second best of the Tigon folk horror films (the heavy, harsh Witchfinder General is objectively better), Blood on Satan’s Claw is number one for fun. The devil and his skin terrorize a 17th century rural English town, one that refuses to believe even as the village darling Angel Blake (Linda Hayden sporting the meanest, most devilish eyebrow game) is recruiting their kids and performing Black Mass in the forest. When the authorities must accept the truth, director Piers Haggard and star Patrick Wymark rain down freeze framed hell on the coven and their new horned beast of an idol. The best part? Your sympathies still kind of lie with the witches throughout.
The Wicker Man (1973) A stone cold classic pitting uninhibited paganism against Christian repression. Robin Hardy’s tremendous film stars Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie, summoned to Summerisle to help in the search for a missing girl. There, the undeniable atmosphere, musical delight, Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle overwhelm him to a still-devastating end. An immortal film.
Suspiria (1977) Dario Argento’s masterpiece follows a young woman in an unfamiliar land and a space entirely too grand, too fantastic to comprehend. Suspiria is a story of ballet and witchcraft. It is a whirlwind of a Gothic fairytale, a film so magickal I often feel as if I’ve never seen it before, despite having watched it perhaps far too many times. It remains disorienting, its scenes of fright and death pitched perfectly between absurdity and horror, a similar space for its folkloric crone Mater Suspiriorum to inhabit. And of course, that score.
Mystics in Bali (1981) Leák Magic is “the most primitive, but also the most dangerous.” H. Tjut Djalil’s Indonesian film is one of a modern woman meeting ancient supernatural, often neon ability. Cathy travels to study Leák and her journey is scored by maniacal witch laughter, guided by massive witch claws and drawn upon by extended witch tongue. Pig transformation, unconscious murder and fireballs follow in this insane piece of work.
Poison for the Fairies (1984) Largely undervalued internationally, director Carlos Enrique Taboada is a towering figure of Mexican horror, having co-written The Witch’s Mirror and directed films like Even the Wind is Afriad, El Libro de Piedra and this, his great film Poison for the Fairies. Poison for the Fairies invokes loss-of-innocence tales as two young girls get further involved with witchcraft and one must find it in herself to stop the other. It is classical, candlelit and often beautiful throughout, building to a sinister climax.
The Witches (1990) Someone gave Nicolas Roeg the reins to a children’s film. Based on Roald Doahl’s beloved book, this Anjelica Huston-starring adaptation is entirely unhinged. The film’s portrait of English reality is invaded by Roeg’s manic style and Doahl’s Grimm leanings of grotesque witches and their hunger for children, especially the story’s lead orphan.
The Craft (1996) This 90s Goth classic flat out rules. Though it could use more support of sisterhood in the end, its shitty attitude, alt sneer, questioning of double standards and amazing Fairuza Balk performance will endure for teen witches everywhere, always. Hail to the Guardians of the Watchtowers.
Black Death (2010) Christopher Smith’s 14th Century-set vision of grim condition and superstition is very much in line with Michael Reeves’ celebrated Witchfinder General, but allows the supernatural to seep in much more. Eddie Redmayne, in a shattering role, essays a young monk who accompanies a band of knights to a village the bubonic plague has yet to reach, the cause assumed to be witchcraft. Though beautiful, Black Death is also a sad film, a portrait of frightening religious devotion and desire out of reach. Carice van Houten, as presumed witch Langiva, is incredible.