One theme, five killer films. We venture off the beaten path to conjure up five spellbinding films about witches worth adding to your watch list.
It’s Halloween, and we all know what that means…time to watch Hocus Pocus for the 40th time! But if this year you find yourself longing for something beyond the typical Sanderson Sisters antics, you’re in luck, because there is no shortage of witches and wizards on your favorite streaming platforms to charm you this October.
The archetype of the witch is ever evolving; we’ve certainly come a long way since the haggard old woman with the pointed hat cackling over a bubbling cauldron. Witches can be good or evil, old or young, ugly or beautiful, male or female…and often they’re just misunderstood. The enduring success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch has proven that our appetite for black magic and hexes is as alive as ever. And seeing as how witches have been cultural obsessions for hundreds of years, it’s unlikely they’ll be going anywhere soon.
If you’re looking for something wicked to watch during the witching hour this Halloween, consider invoking one of these five films.
1. Summer of Fear (1978)
Poor Linda Blair, she just can’t catch a break! First her body is inhabited by a demon, then her house is invaded by a witch.
Five years after she became America’s possessed sweetheart in The Exorcist (1973), Wes Craven took her on board for his 1978 TV movie Summer of Fear (initially called Stranger in Our House), which premiered Halloween night on NBC.
Blair plays Rachel Bryant, a happy teenage girl who has it all — a loving family, a handsome doting boyfriend, and a sprawling ranch house where she can ride her favorite horse. One day, Rachel wakes up to find out that her aunt and uncle have died in a horrible car crash, and her parents must rush off in a hurry to attend the funeral.
When they return, they bring an unexpected guest along — Rachel’s poor orphaned cousin, Julia. It takes some adjusting to get used to the new presence in the house, especially since no one has seen Julia since she was a little girl.
Rachel is excited to have a friend to hang out with, though Julia seems a bit awkward at first. Soon, however, Julia’s awkwardness transforms unexpectedly into an alluring charm that no one can seem to resist, including Rachel’s parents and boyfriend. As Rachel watches her mysterious cousin slowly take over her life while her own misfortunes pile up, she starts to suspect that Julia may be up to something sinister…or perhaps that she may not be her cousin at all, but an evil witch attempting to usurp her life.
The film was not particularly well received, and probably rightly so; it doesn’t pack near the punch as Craven’s other works, and the performances are generally underwhelming at best. Yet, it stands as an enduring monument to the late 1970s/early 1980s, which is currently undergoing a nostalgic renaissance thanks to pop culture phenomena like Netflix’s Stranger Things (though Summer of Fear reminds us about the painful realities of the fashion of the time.)
The plot is where the movie has the most going for it, driven primarily by frustrated teenage angst amped up by a rival who gleefully sabotages everything just because she can. Quality aside, this is a must-see for fans of Wes Craven fans or Linda Blair (or for any fans of Fran Drescher, who gets a small part as Rachel’s best friend in one of her very first roles.)
2. The Woods (2006)
Four years after releasing his super weird, super creepy cult favorite May, director Lucky McKee followed up in 2006 with another strange story of female ostracization, The Woods.
The movie takes place in 1965, when a delinquent teenager, Heather, is sent off to study at a prestigious girls boarding school deep in the New England woods. Heather is cynical, jaded, and snarky, though apparently extremely talented. Thus, she is welcomed into the school with open arms, despite her parents’ financial constraints.
Her experience at her new school is an uncomfortable one, as she rubs teachers and a few other students the wrong way. Meanwhile, legends about the school’s troubled history — including suicide attempts, students being committed to mental asylums, and witches lurking in the woods — make for unnerving bedtime stories.
Eventually, Heather befriends some fellow outcasts and tries to make the best of things. However, it gets harder to ignore the weird things going on at the school, especially the increasing number of girls who begin acting strangely and then disappearing in the night. Heather is also increasingly disturbed by her own emerging powers, and starts to wonder if maybe those spooky stories about witches in the woods are more than just silly school lore.
Harry Potter lovers might appreciate The Woods’ Hogwarts-esque atmosphere (if Hogwarts was overrun by Slytherins). A spiritual descendent of films like Susperia — though without the artistic flourish or timeless beauty — the film’s inevitable goal of revealing that the school is run by witches is pretty readily apparent from the get-go. However, anticipating the end result doesn’t necessarily diminish the journey. In fact, The Woods can be kind of convoluted at times, more of a meandering trek down a dark forest path than a straight shot from point A to point B.
This lower budget, straight-to-DVD flick is one you may have totally overlooked when it came out in 2006. But it boasts a pretty solid cast for a little known B movie, including Academy Award nominee Patricia Clarkson as the headmistress and Bruce Campbell as Heather’s father.
3. Tamara (2005)
If trashy, clichéd, low-budget flicks are your guilty pleasure, then look no further.
Tamara was panned at the box office when it was released in 2005 and lives on as a fun throwback to the campy sexy teen screams of the day. Chock full of sex, seduction, witchcraft, and revenge, Tamara is a sort of conceptually stitched-together combination of The Craft and Carrie, and Fatal Attraction, with an extra dose of cheesiness for good measure.
After Tamara, the dorkiest girl in class, writes an editorial for the school newspaper exposing steroid use among school athletes, a group of popular kids concoct a cruel scheme to teach her a lesson. The group figures out that they can exploit Tamara’s desperate crush on her English teacher, Mr. Natolly, and they trick her into thinking she’s going to meet up with him for a passionate liaison.
Needless to say, the prank goes horribly wrong, and by the end of the night they find themselves burying Tamara’s body in a ditch. Yet, little do they know that Tamara had been dabbling in witchcraft, and that earlier that same night she performed a love spell, which allowed her to return from the grave.
Not only is she alive and kicking, but her brush with death miraculously transformed her from a shy mousy nerd into a red-hot knockout. Now her only goal is to work her magic on the unsuspecting Mr. Natolly and to exact twisted revenge on those who have wronged her.
While you likely won’t find Tamara to be particularly spellbinding, actress Jenna Dewan must have felt at home in her witchy role as the beautiful and powerful enchantress. She would later go on to co-star in the short-lived but much beloved Lifetime series The Witches of East End.
4. Witch-Hunt (2017)
Amazon Prime can be a real mixed bag when it comes to low budget indie horror, which makes a good find all the more special.
Enter Witch-Hunt, an unassuming movie by Philip Schaeffer, a writer/director with almost no resume to speak of, featuring an all-female cast made up entirely of unknown actresses. Modest though it may seem, give this one a chance and you may find a new Halloween staple worthy of a place on your yearly viewing rotation.
The scene has been set for a Pinterest-perfect evening that would be the envy of any Millennial’s Instagram feed, as five friends gather for a Halloween-inspired birthday party. After spending some time reminiscing, the women settle in for a ghoulish game night. Their game of choice is called Witch Hunt. Accompanied by an old-fashioned audio cassette tape, the women are guided through the rules of play, in which they are each dealt a card that assigns them a secret identity. Their ultimate goal is to find and execute the witch — and to avoid pointing the finger at any innocent townsfolk in the process.
The night starts off jovially enough with plenty of wine and laughter, though a hint of friction indicates there may be some unresolved wounds from the distant past. As the game intensifies and women start to experience strange and inexplicable occurrences, tensions are pushed to the breaking point, inevitably forcing them to confront their past head-on — as well as the fact that that there may be a real-life witch hiding in their midst.
From my own experience with social deduction games like Witch Hunt (think Mafia or Werewolf), the stress and paranoia can get very real very quickly. Add to that a mixture of ugly secrets and unresolved trauma, and it’s no surprise that the result is as volatile as an actual witch hunt.
The film is suspenseful and delightfully atmospheric (the shots are framed in a subtly spooky vignetting effect), and the many clever twists and turns are guaranteed to keep you on guard until the last minute. But it’s not all just fun and games. The film also speaks to some very serious themes — distrust, betrayal, grudges, manipulation, and guilt to name a few — and pays its respects to actual witch trials of the past, including the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s.
(Bonus for all the history nerds out there: If the five characters’ names — Susannah Post, Alice Parker, Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, and Mary Eastey — seem familiar, it’s because they’re all the actual names of women involved in the Salem Witch Trials.)
5. The Devil’s Bride (2016)
Speaking of the Salem Witch trials, it no doubt stands as one of the more shameful moments in United States history. Twenty innocent people were executed based on fraudulent charges of witchcraft, fueled by a hysteria that spread like wildfire through colonial Salem, Massachusetts. But the 1692 Salem incident is amateur hour compared to what was going on across the pond.
Starting in the 1400s and lasting into the 1700s, tens of thousands of people were executed for witchcraft in western Europe. In one five-year period alone, in one single German principality, approximately 900 people were executed on charges of witchcraft, many by beheading and burning at the stake.
I hope it doesn’t need to be reiterated, but despite what many movies, TV shows, and tourist gimmicks might indicate, there were never any actual witches in Salem or anywhere else. There were only people — men, women, and children alike —who were sent to their deaths, often by their own neighbors. Personally, I find that much more terrifying than witchcraft.
Director Saara Cantell’s turns our attention to the witch trials of Scandinavia in Devil’s Bride (or “Tulen morsian” in Finnish). In a small Finnish island village, Anna is a beautiful young woman who works as a maid in the local judge’s house. Meanwhile, she is carrying on a thrilling affair with a married man, Elias, whose wife Rakel has just given birth to his child. Aware of her husband’s dalliances and general affinity for younger girls, Rakel tries to dissuade Anna from continuing her relationship with Elias, but her pleas only induce Anna into a fit of jealous rage.
Inspired by the growing trend around the village of weeding out people who practice witchcraft, Anna accuses Rakel of consorting with the devil, hoping that she will be banished from the island and Elias will be left behind for the taking. As events spiral out of control and it becomes clear that Rakel’s blood will soon be on Anna’s hands, Anna must reckon with her careless actions and decide who should ultimately pay the price for her sins.
It is all too easy for the human toll of the centuries-long history of the European witch hunts to be lost in the drama and intrigue, often totally subsumed by the titillating (and ultimately baseless) connection to the occult. The Devil’s Bride depicts many uncomfortable truths and consequences of what it must have been like to live through such turbulent times — husbands losing their wives, children losing their main caregivers, communities losing valuable members of society, and of course people losing their ability to trust one another.
It bears mentioning that witch hunts are not confined to far-off moments in history. In fact, they are still a reality in many parts of the world, with the number of victims mounting even to this day.