Top Picks for Witchcraft Films
With Halloween right around the corner I thought I’d pick my top horror films dealing with the topic of witchcraft. I’ve left four extraordinary films off the list, including Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which is a gothic horror film featuring Barbara Steele as a vengeful witch; Robin Hardy’s brilliant and unsual The Wickerman (1973), with pagan-occult themes, but no witches; Dario Argento’s colorful Suspiria (1977), considered by many to be a horror masterpiece; and the visually stunning, but generally overrated Häxan (1922), which is about witchcraft, but really isn’t a very watchable film.
First on my list is The Blair Witch Project (1999), which I originally watched in a sold out art theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Few films had such an impact on the audience and I can attest that people were either glued to their seats, vomited due to the hand-held camera motion, or were scared out of their wits. I found it to be one of the scariest films I had ever seen. Of course, the “found footage” gimmick has run its course. I also think the film loses much on a small home theater, as the reactions of patrons enhanced the whole aura and mystique of the film. I remember walking out of a theater thinking to myself what did I just see? The late film critic Roger Ebert called it “an extraordinary effective horror film”. It is and garners my vote for one of the best films on witchcraft ever made.
Under Roman Polanski’s direction, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) might be the quintessential witchcraft film. It offers everything and is arguably one of the finest horror films ever made. The script, acting, composition and music were all top-notch, with Ruth Gordon (Best Actress in a Supporting Role, 1968) and Sydney Blackmer standing out as the conjuring Castevets.
Mia Farrow was unforgettable as the lead who realizes she is being pulled deeper and deeper into the realm of witchcraft. Pay attention to how the massive apartment complex is used in this film —serving as a major character and enhancing the claustrophobic feel of the film.
I wish I could see this on a big screen. Be sure to view the Criterion Blu-ray which offers a sublime print and several supplements.
The Devil Rides Out (1968) is Hammer’s finest film on witchcraft and is far superior to earlier The Witches (1966). The Devil Rides Out is Christopher Lee’s vehicle all the way as occult specialist Duc de Richleau, who battles satanic leader Mocata (Charles Gray). The film was adapted by Richard Matheson from the classic horror fiction novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out, 1934). The film effectively captures the 1930’s with several vintage cars and familiar British landscapes.
The finale is unforgettable as the film’s protagonists battle an ancient evil. If you have some time be sure to listen to an audio commentary on the DVD featuring Christopher Lee. His knowledge of the occult is astonishing as he discusses the basis for the film and Wheatley’s original novel. The Devil Rides Out is essential horror viewing and one of the finest films ever made on witchcraft.
Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) features Boris Karloff as devil-worshipping architect Hjalmar Poelzig who battles wits versus Bela’s Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast. This was the first pairing of the horror icons. It holds up to modern viewing due to the charismatic leads, an unusual story, Ulmer’s tight direction, and John J. Mescall’s luminous photography. The Black Cat isn’t really a film about witchcraft, but includes a satanic mass and coven of satanic followers. Look quick for John Carradine as the organist.
Incubus (1966) is a found lost film starring William Shatner and featuring Conrad Hall’s stark black-and-white photography. It also has the distinction of being the only film using the artificial language of Esperantu. The film plays a bit like an Outer Limits episode due to direction by Leslie Stevens. Shatner basically encounters and battles witch-like demons and/or succubi. Of all the films I’ve selected, Incubus is the most unusual and has a bit of a cult following. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Devil’s Partner (1961) is a low-budget gem about a mysterious man who shows up in the rural community of Furnace Flat. After his arrival people start dying. Devil’s Partner offers a good score by Ronald Stein and etherial sounds of a theremin. Edgar Buchanon (1903-1979) plays a doctor in the film. He is of course best known as Uncle Joe Carson from the Green Acres and Petticoat Junction sitcoms from the 60’s.
Night of the Demon (1957) might be the finest film ever made dealing with witch-craft and the occult. Skeptic Dana Andrews has a hex put on him by satanist Karswell (well played by Niall MacGinnis), and slowly realizes a demon is after him. Val Lewton’s friend Jacques Tourneur helmed the film and the suspense is unforgettable. I watched this a zillion times as a kid on network TV.
City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960) is the quintessential Halloween film, with professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) sending a student to a rural New England village to do research on witchcraft. The film is incredibly nightmarish and adeptly directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker, 1972). Watch Horror Hotel Free Here.
Drag Me to Hell (2009) is my modern pick for witchcraft films. Portions of the movie are a rehash of Night of the Demon, but director Sam Raimi kept this fun, scary and suspenseful. I saw this in a drive-in theater in Muskegon, Michigan.
For Completists Only:
George Romero’s Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives, 1972) taxed my ability to stay focused on a cathode ray tube. However, the film might appeal to masochists looking for something different.