Double, Double Toil and Trouble: The Witch in Horror Movies

Last week, Orion Pictures released their adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, Hansel and GretelGretel & Hansel. The latest directorial feature from Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) re-visits a classic horror narrative – the evil witch in the woods. Though vampires, werewolves, and zombie have all enjoyed cycles of mainstream popularity, witches lingered in the background. But they’ve never gone away. Bewitched, The Witches of Waverly Place, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch entertained television audiences across generations. And big-screen horror movies occasionally conjure up an old-fashioned hex for horror fans. Below are a selection of horror movies featuring witches to put you under a spell. This isn’t a ranking – it’s just a list of movies worth checking out. And no, Hocus Pocus isn’t on this list.

Black Sunday (1960)

There are two popular witch narratives in horror. First, we have the Grimm Brothers ‘witch in the woods’. And then there’s the persecuted witch seeking revenge. Horror classic Black Sunday falls into the latter category. Horror master Mario Bava (Bay of Blood) directed this story of a witch put to death only to return 200 years later for revenge. At the time of its release, Black Sunday was somewhat controversial as some critics found it to be too gruesome. It’s a visually striking movie that’s often equal parts silly and unnerving. Fans of Bava’s more bloody work that would follow will see seedlings of that filmmaking style here Older horror fans will also appreciate ‘Scream Queen’ Barbara Steele’s presence.

Burn Witch Burn (1962)

Fans of old-fashioned horror will enjoy this slightly more obscure black-and-white horror movie. When a successful college professor’s personal and professional life take a dramatic downward turn, his wife suspects a curse. Ever the pragmatic skeptic, the professor is horrified when his wife turns to witchcraft to protect him. But as the tragedies pile up, he’s forced to confront the supernatural. On the one hand, Burn, Witch, Burn’s old-fashioned supernatural mystery may feel dated to some horror fans. Still, there’s plenty to appreciate with this atmospheric, moody, and tightly-paced thriller. Besides, Burn, Witch, Burn’s ending is a satisfying, if not uneasy, conclusion.

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Okay, Cry of the Banshee isn’t one of Vincent Price’s better movies. File this one under ‘guilty pleasure’. As was the case in most of his movie, Price hams it up as the villain – an evil magistrate looking to wipe out the members of a witch’s coven. When he fails to kill all its members, the survivor curses Price and his family. Brutal deaths (for 1970) follow. One of American International Pictures’ (AIP) later entries, Cry of the Banshee followed suit with Hammer Films in the 1970’s. As Gothic horror faded in popularity, AIP upped both the gore and nudity to attract movie-goers. And Cry of the Banshee has a little bit of both. It’s probably the cheesiest movie on this list, but Vincent Price fans have to check it out.

Suspiria (1977)

Forget the forest. No houses made of gingerbread. Not a single boiling cauldron. Dario Argento’s Giallo masterpiece, Suspiria, brings a coven of witches to an elite European dance school. Like most Giallo movies, Suspiria’s story is illogical and almost incoherent. And as for dialogue, the less said the better. But it’s an absolute surrrealist nightmare. Everything is garish and over-the-top. Argento created a world washed in bright, unnatural primary colours. Italian rock band Goblin’s soundtrack is an intentionally disruptive music score. Arguably, Goblin’s work on Suspiria is one of the most distinct horror movie scores ever made. You won’t find many horror movies as haunting as Suspiria.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead didn’t make much of impression in theaters. But like many underrated movies, Oscar-winning special effects wizard Stan Winston’s directorial debut found new life on videostore shelves. Forget CGI effects. This story about a grieving father and a vengeance demon boasted some of Winston’s classic creature effects. Aside from horror veteran Lance Henriksen, it’s a novice cast but some stiff dialogue never detracts from the movie. Ultimately, Pumpkinhead is a southern horror fairy tale warning about the costs of revenge. Everyone remembers Winston’s gangly monster, but the witch is no less creepy.

The Craft (1996)

Upon its release, The Craft was a modest success with a 90’s-defining soundtrack. Over the years, however, The Craft has built a loyal following of fans. In addition to an upcoming remake, Funko POP even announced a line of figures based on the movie. Yes, The Craft is pure teen horror that plays it relatively safe. Certainly, there’s an MTV-feel to the movie to accompany its soundtrack. Nonetheless, The Craft’s story of sisterhood and the care taken to flesh out its female leads sets it apart. Moreover, The Craft hit on a number of issues that have only become more socially relevant. While it’s an ideal candidate for a contemporary re-imagining, the original movie remains very watchable.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

What else can be said about The Blair Witch Project? It’s the movie that launched the found-footage horror subgenre. In the summer of 1999, The Blair Witch Project was a box office phenomenon. The story of three missing documentary filmmakers and their recovered video footage scared people out of the woods the same way Jaws cleared out ocean beaches. Before social media, The Blair Witch Project previewed what viral marketing campaigns would become in the future. And it’s a damn scary movie to boot – a perfectly paced slow-burn. Though the titular witch is never revealed, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez weave in a rich mythology for her. That final shot of Mike standing in the corner before the camera drops to the ground is lingering and unnerving.

Lords of Salem (2013)

Though The Devil’s Rejects remains Rob Zombie’s best movie, Lords of Salem is underrated. It was a significant step forward for Zombie as a filmmaker. When a popular radio DJ in Salem, Massachusetts, plays an anonymous band, The Lords, she experiences increasingly haunting images. And it doesn’t help that her kind, helpful neighbours are witches. Think Rosemary’s Baby meets Ken Russell’s The Devils. For perhaps the first time in his filmmaking career, Zombie showed restraint. That is, the shock director focused more on atmosphere than grindhouse gore. Zombie actually instills a steadily growing dread. The Lords’ ‘song’ is haunting and the ending is a ‘mind fuck’ that references Kubrick in all the right ways.

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, The Witch, is haunting. It’s the ‘evil witch in the woods’ straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, but so much more. Despite its challenging old English dialogue, The Witch instantly immerses the audience in its uneasy atmosphere. While the violence is sparse, Eggers’ imagery disturbs. This is an ambiguous psychological horror movie about the ‘devil’ in people’s own hearts. You’ll be left guessing where the true threat lies right to the very end. And Eggers’ final image is one of the more unsettling endings since The Blair Witch Project. Besides, any movie that can make a goat utterly terrifying must be good, right?

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

Norwegian director André Øvredal’s (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) The Autopsy of Jane Doe is arguably the most unique movie on this list. A mix of supernatural and mystery, The Autopsy of Jane Doe largely limits its story to a single setting – a funeral home. Father and son morticians conduct an autopsy on a ‘Jane Doe’ with no visible injuries. But each of the autopsy uncovers horrific damage that defies rational explanation. By and large, this is quiet, restrained horror. While there are a few jump scares, they’re neither forced nor telegraphed with loud noises. Atmosphere, tension, and an eerily unfolding puzzle are the orders of they day. Simply put, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of the more interesting uses of witch folklore in horror.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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