While witches in the movies have generally been consigned to pictures we’d rather forget, it’s actually pretty remarkable how diversely they’ve been used. From comedies to teen movies to even animated fare, the witch has provided some creative source material for writers willing to go the extra mile. And more than a few of these characters have cast their spell on us.
This weekend, “Beautiful Creatures” arrives in theaters nationwide, concerning a young witch (or, in their vernacular, “caster”) who falls in love with a teenage human. The movie — which isn’t that great — got us thinking about broomriders, and which ones would be worth revisiting again. So below, check out our choices for the ten most memorable movie witches, and then tell us in the comments section who your favorites are.
Anjelica Huston in “The Witches” (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)
In what would prove to be his last great movie, Nicolas Roeg, the auteur behind psychosexual horror shows “Don’t Look Now” and “Bad Timing” (as well as the meditative “Walkabout” and whatever the hell “The Man Who Fell To Earth” is), adapted the Roald Dahl novel about an evil coven of witches and the little boy that runs afoul of their evil scheme (they turn him into an adorable mouse). One of the last movies personally overseen by Jim Henson (the other was the MuppetVision 3D movie for Orlando’s Walt Disney World), “The Witches” is genuinely frightening and exhilaratingly weird, thanks mostly to a show-stopping lead performance by Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch (yes, that’s actually her name), who, in her witchy form, is absolutely a triumph of make-up wizardry and maybe the most indelible cinematic witch (at least from a design standpoint) this side of “Wizard of Oz” (more on that in a minute). Our favorite feature? The witches’ square feet. The embellishment is such a bizarre Dahl-ism, it could only be brought to life by the brilliantly fearless Roeg.
Margaret Hamilton in “Wizard of Oz” (Victor Fleming, 1939)
The most iconic cinematic witch has got to be Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in Victor Fleming‘s immortal “Wizard of Oz.” Her skin a sickly pea soup green, her fingers elongated talons, her raspy voice calling that she’ll get you (and your little dog too), the Wicked Witch of the West is the grand empress behind an army of winged monkeys and goonish guards, who has it in for Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her band of merry misfits. (Melted by water though? Kind of a weak way to go.) “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to pinpoint a more memorable character than the Wicked Witch of the West – she’s someone little kids are both afraid of and hopelessly drawn to. She is also, along with Judy, something of a gay icon. While Disney has “Oz The Great And Powerful” in theaters early next month, at least as far as witches go, Hamilton’s performance is going to be a tough act to follow.
Patricia Clarkson in “The Woods” (Lucky McGee, 2006)
Long before Darren Aronofsky made his arty Oscar-winning riff on “Suspiria” with “Black Swan,” indie horror director Lucky McGee mined the same material for “The Woods,” his super smart, super scary, woefully under-seen gem about a girls’ boarding school in the ’60s that’s lorded over by malevolent forces. There’s no force more malevolent than Patricia Clarkson‘s Ms. Traverse, a head mistress with a dark-ass secret (hint: she’s a fucking witch). What makes her so scary is that she at first seems to be perfectly sweet and amiable, but this is before she’s sending evil trees to attack Bruce Campbell and murdering students (Agnes Bruckner, as the student most psychically traumatized, nicely channels Sissy Spacek in “Carrie” as well as Jessica Harper in “Suspiria”). While “The Woods” falls apart as the weirdness starts to pile up, Clarkson is a genuinely wonderful witch – the kind that you could imagine luring children into a gingerbread house or, in this case, strictly running a girls’ boarding school.
Barbara Steele in “Black Sunday” (Mario Bava, 1960)
Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock‘s game-changing chiller “Psycho,” Mario Bava‘s shocking “Black Sunday” stars a truly magnetic Barbara Steele as an ancient witch put to death, who comes back 200 years later to exact her bloody revenge on her original killers’ descendants. Also: she’s kind of a vampire, which is pretty cool. Filmed in velvety black-and-white, “Black Sunday” was a sensation upon its initial release (the theatrical trailer intoned, “Not since Dracula stalked the earth has the world known so terrifying a day… or night…”), daringly up front about its sexuality, violence, and religion (Satanism is gleefully practiced). Steele, as the ageless witch, is both scary and incredibly sexy, two prerequisites for top-tier witches. (Unsurprisingly, she became an instant cult icon.) She not only gets to kill people but also bring them back to life. Now that’s power!
Julian Sands in “Warlock” (Steve Miner, 1989)
In this surprisingly solid low-budget shocker, Julian Sands, a veritable Marianas Trench of charm, plays a witch who, sort of like Barbara Steele in “Black Sunday,” is prosecuted for his witchy crimes in the past (led by a witch hunter played by none other than Richard Grant), but before he can get slain, Satan (yes, this is serious business) shows up and zaps Sands into the future (Grant follows him through the wormhole). The stuff in the present is kind of dopey (it involves a Necronomicon-style magical book and a pair of innocent kids caught in the magical crosshairs), but “Warlock” is an interesting intersection of fish-out-of-water comedy and pagan horror movie. Of course, the whole thing would fall apart if not for the lead performance by Sands (who would reprise the role in the 1993 sequel “Warlock: Armageddon“), a beguiling mix of menace and danger that does a lot to camouflage the silly script and subpar special effects. The score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is admittedly pretty great too, as is Grant’s scenery-chomping secondary role, which would require a very powerful spell to contain.
Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus” (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
A surprising holiday cult hit, Disney‘s Halloween favorite “Hocus Pocus,” co-written by horror movie favorite Mick Garris and directed by “High School Musical” helmer Kenny Ortega, features a trio of villainous witches resurrected in the year 1993. The witches are played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, three Salem sisters who are up to a whole lot of no good. And while Parker and Najimy equip themselves admirably, with Parker being goofy and Najimy being ghoulish, it’s Midler who really steals the show. She brings a kind of Broadway theatricality to the role, able to switch from menacing to funny and back again in a heartbeat. As any rapper will tell you, they love a woman who can “work the pole,” but Midler makes magic happen when you give her a broom.
Cher/Michelle Pfieffer/Susan Sarandon in “The Witches of Eastwick” (George Miller, 1987)
The terrific and terribly underrated adaptation of the controversial John Updike novel of the same name, “The Witches of Eastwick” finds a trio of disaffected suburban women (Pfieffer, Sarandon and Cher), inadvertently discovering their witchy supernatural powers after a charismatic man (Jack Nicholson, naturally), who also happens to be the devil, shows up in their small New England town. As directed by George Miller of “Mad Max” fame, “The Witches of Eastwick” has a wonderfully demented, off-the-wall style, exemplified by a memorable game of tennis between the women and Nicholson that has some magical overtones. But the movie belongs to the trio of amazing actresses, who walk the fine tonal line required of their characters – they go from being bored, sad and lonely to being empowered, in both the supernatural and personal sense. What’s more – they realize that they are far more powerful together than they could ever be apart. Sisterhood! Also: is there a spell to make us forget about the awful 2009 ABC series based on the book/movie?
Veronica Lake in “I Married A Witch” (Rene Clair, 1942)
The great art nouveau poster for “I Married a Witch” proclaims “No man can resister her,” suggesting that Lake’s witchy powers draw men in, not her flawless face or impeccable physique. Right. (Yet she still gets second billing after Fredric March.) Lake plays a Salem witch who vows revenge against the men who burned her and her father at the stake. Generations pass before she’s finally released, and she sets her sights on March, who plays the descendent of her pursuer. Of course, this being a wacky comedy unofficially produced by Preston Sturges, she goes after his heart (not literally). They end up falling in love and all sorts of calamity ensues (at one point she explains to March that love is a more powerful spell than anything in witchcraft). Lake makes you believe that someone could identify her as a witch, since you fall under her spell repeatedly throughout the movie’s brief 77-minute running time.
Neve Campbell in “The Craft” (Andrew Fleming, 1996)
A lower-rung entry in the mid-nineties teen horror renaissance, “The Craft” is the tale of a new girl (Robin Tunney – anybody seen her recently?) who arrives at a new school and falls in with a group of girls rumored to be witches (Campbell, Fairuza Balk and Rachel True). Campbell made the most compelling witch because she seemed the most believable – you could understand her being seduced by dark forces; she seemed fragile and alone and yet also totally willing to transform herself, possibly with the aid of supernatural forces. We’re a sucker for any tale of female empowerment, especially one that involves black magic, and while it isn’t as successful a parable as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which was airing at the same time), it is kind of fun. There’s a memorable sequence where Campbell rids herself of horrible scars that have been a source of embarrassment and consternation her whole life. (She kind of “wipes” them away, in a surprisingly effective make-up effects gag.) Campbell would end up being the ’90s Scream Queen, but her most poignant role might be this witchy woman.
Kirsten Dunst in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)
If we’re talking about pure adorableness, Kiki (voiced by Minami Takayama in the original Japanese version and Kirsten Dunst in the Disney-supervised dub) would win hands down. As written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, largely seen as Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, Kiki is a young witch whose supernatural powers haven’t developed much beyond her being able to ride a broom (and she’s not exactly an expert at that, either). She decides to set up a delivery service and heads off to the big city, with her wise-ass talking cat (in the Disney version it would end up being the last role from Phil Hartman). Kiki is a surprisingly nuanced and complex character, with the situation setting up a rich coming-of-age tale wherein we watch Kiki experience self-doubt, learn about herself, and ultimately become empowered. Of course, given that this is a Miyazaki movie, the thematic undercurrents remain subtle and unobtrusive. The adorableness, however, is front and center.