31 Days of Witches in American Movies 2018
This October I did a film festival of sorts via Twitter and Facebook. Each day in October, I listed a a movie containing a witch along with a fact or comment. Every movie listed is considered a U.S. production, and they span the ages from the silent era to 2016.
The entire film festival was based on information in my book Bell, Book, and Camera, and some entries contain a page number to find more information on the film. Here is collection of those entries:
October 1: Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart.
Factoid: Screenwriter Daniel Taradash said that Novak jumped into her character right away and pretended to be a witch behind the cameras as well as in front. (pg. 110, Bell, Book, and Camera)
October 2: Spitfire (1934) Starring (a very young) Kathrine Hepburn
Factoid: Although Hepburn's character is only called a witch once for her faith healing ability, the studio's promo material used the word to draw in audiences. (p. 49)
October 3: Rosemary's Baby (1968) Starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes
Factoid: When the censorship administration gave Paramount producers a long list of script corrections, the producers pushed back saying that director Roman Polanski did not want to be disturbed and no changes would be made. Shortly after the film was released, the censorship office was eliminated. The rating system was put into place and the satanic horror witch was allowed to take a prominent place in film and television. (p. 123)
October 4: Practical Magic (1999) Starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Aidan Quinn, Stockard Channing, Dianne West
Factoid: This romantic comedy, famous for its midnight margaritas, was based on a best selling novel by Alice Hoffman, and is one of the few movies with source material written by a woman. Director Griffin Dunne said that the film and book are not really about magic and witches, but about women and motherhood. (p. 174)
October 5: Hungry Wives (1972) Starring Jan White
Factoid: Director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead series) imagined this horror film as a reflection of second wave feminism. It was filmed under the title "Jack's Wife" with a tiny budget and crew. Due most likely to poor, sensationalized marketing, the film was a flop, even after it was re-released as "Season of the Witch." Despite its reception, the film does an excellent job of portraying the expressed struggles of American women at the time. (p. 126-127).
October 6: The Witches (1990) Starring Angelica Huston
Factoid: A joint British-American production, this film was another flop, but it has since gained a cult following. Roald Dahl, the author of the original book, called the film "utterly appalling" and swore to never release his material for a film adaptation again. Dahl died in November 1990, three months after the film's US release and six months after the UK release. As an aside, Jim Henson, who co-produced the film, died that May. (p. 171)
October 7: The Undead (1957) Starring Allison Hayes, Dorothy Neumann, Pamela Duncan
Factoid: Originally called "The Hypnosis of Diana Love," this Roger Corman horror classic is one of the first American horror films to fully feature satanic-based witches. (It's actually more a highly campy cross-over between fantasy and horror and 1950's melodrama.) (p. 106-107)
October 8: The Witch (2016) Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson
Factoid: The Witch was billed as horror, and many viewers felt disappointed. With only one jump scare moment, it lacks many of the typical conventions of recent horror films. However, the film was celebrated by critics, and it won awards at many film festivals in the US and abroad, including Sundance. It is a beautiful film that trudges along through the haunting atmosphere of extremes, dancing with paranoia, folkloric and religious superstition, and basic survival instincts.
October 9: I Married a Witch (1942) Starring Veronica Lake and Frederic March
Factoid: This film is a screwball comedy that was based on a novel by Thorne Smith, called "The Passionate Witch." The novel, which portrays Jennifer as an evil, temptress and Wooley as a pious religious man, is very different from the movie, which portrays Jennifer as a silly, mischievous young woman and Wooley as a confused, but respected business man. The differences between the two and the changes made are great indicators of how Hollywood censors and producers shaped the construction of witches at the time. (Contrary to popular belief, Bell, Book, and Candle was not a remake of this film.)
October 10: Witches' Night (2007) Starring Lauren Ryland
Factoid: This is a little known indie film that was made in the style of the early 1970s witch horror films with all the expected lurid tropes. However, director Paul Traynor added a contemporary twist making his coven of satanic undead vamp witches "more enigmatic" with strong feminist currents. And that point was underscored by the characterization of the men as misogynistic women-haters. Unlike in the 1970s horror witch films, the lines between who is good and who is bad are not comfortably found.(This movie is not easy to find. You may have to buy it on DVD)
October 11: The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Starring Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher
Factoid: Based on a 1984 novel by John Updike, this film was quite different from the book in terms of witch construction. In the book, the trio of women are witches from page one. In the movie, the women are abused and tired middle age women who accidentally gain magical power during a "girls night" after wishing for new men. (p. 161)(The best scene in the movie is Nicholson's performance in the church at the end.)
October 12: Winter of the Witch (1969) Starring Hermione Gingold
Factoid: Many of you may remember watching this movie about a little boy, a single mom, an old house, a witch, and magic-laced blueberry pancakes. Based on a children's book by Wende and Harry Devilin and produced by Parents Magazine, it offers an alternative role for the classic Halloween witch and also reflects the period of time in which it was made. "The world is full of evil nowadays. People don't need witches anymore," the witch tells the boy. No spoilers on the end! (p. 138)
October 13: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) Starring Bebe Daniels
Factoid: This film was the very first film adaptation of L.Frank Baum's famous books. It is one of the few silent witch films to have survived to today. Baum himself was involved in its production. Several years later, he opened the Oz film manufacturing company, producing other Oz silents. That company lasted only about year after it became part of Metro pictures, which was the beginnings of MGM, the producer the more famous adaptation of Baum's books.
October 14: Hocus Pocus (1993) Starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy
Factoid: Released during the Satan Panic, Hocus Pocus is a story about 3 Salem witches come back from the dead to kill children. Despite its all star cast, the film failed at the box office. A NY times reviewer called it "an unholy mess." It was not able to find an audience because it was too scary for children and too silly for adults. Since its original release, the film has earned quite a cult following, particularly Bette Midler's Winifred Sanderson.
October 15: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Factoid: Disney's film was a landmark achievement in that it was the first full length animated color film in the U.S. Nobody thought a "cartoon" could capture the attention of audiences for more than a few minutes. They were wrong. It was a success and awarded a special Oscar. The Wicked Queen has since become one of the most well-known American witches and the basis for many of the Disney's later evil witch characters.
October 16: Simon King of the Witches (1971) Starring Andrew Prine
Factoid: This low-budget horror exploitation film is one of the few Hollywood movies to define a man as a witch, which is particularly true of pre-2000 horror films. It is also one of the few and first films that links witchcraft to religion without a direct satanic element (contrary to what the marketing campaign suggests.) Simon talks to gods and is seeking to be god-like, linking magic to something sacred. He speaks to Osiris, in particular, who appears as a red floating ball. (p.135)
October 17: The Wiz (1978) Starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Mabel King, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor
Factoid: Based on a successful musical, The Wiz was one of the first films to feature people of color as genuine witches without the framework of Voodoo or any forms of character othering often found in Hollywood witch films. It is also one of the few adaptations of the famous Baum story to completely sidestep its MGM predecessor. Unfortunately, the film did not fare so well, despite its all star cast. It was criticized for being tone deaf, over done, and not faithful to the original's spirit. The Wiz was redone successfully for a recent live television performance.
October 18: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Factoid: The Blair Witch Project was striking in what it did, both as a film and as a cultural product. In terms of witch films, it created a bridge between the popularity of the fantasy teen witch films and the paranormal (X-Files). And, it triggered a number of ghost witch films and related TV episodes in the early 2000s, Some of these were direct knock-offs and some not. It had its own sequels, including the more recent The Blair Witch (2016). Also, note that this is one of the few films in my book that does not actually contain a visible witch. As a side note, Pagan, Witch and Film writer Peg Aloi interviewed the directors back in 1999 about the project and the construction of the witch herself.
October 19: Mysteries of Myra (1916) starring Jean Sothern, Howard Estabrook
Factoid: Filmed in Ithaca, New York, this silent serial tells the story of a young girl who is perpetually being stalked by an occult-based cult called the Black Order. The Grand Master designed to mimic famed occultist Aleister Crowley, and the cult's rituals are based on his work. That wasn't an accident, Crowley was living in NY at the time and acted as the film's adviser. The serial also contains a more traditional fantasy witch figure but only in episode 13. Unfortunately, most of the serial did not survive.
October 20: The Naked Witch (1961) Directed by Larry Buchanan
Factoid: This low-budget, hyper-campy, odd film is one of the earliest horror films to incorporate witches, more specifically the dead witch. Directed by Larry Buchanan, the film tells the story of a scorned woman who was killed for witchcraft, and then raised from the dead to go on a killing spree. And yes, she is naked, which qualifies it as a 1960s "nude" film. The film was released in 1964 after settling some production issues. Interestingly, AFI and most other resources confuse Buchanan's film with another film titled The Naked Witch (1967), also known as The Naked Temptress. This latter film is a lost exploitation film by Andy Milligan that tells of love affairs and witchcraft. (p. 108)
October 22: Maid of Salem (1937) Starring Claudette Colbert
Factoid: Salem is a regular backdrop of witchcraft narratives since the earliest days of the American film industry. While the country "celebrated" the historical legacy, the town wasn't so enamored until almost the 1960s. This film, Maid of Salem, is one of the earliest talkies that dives into the Salem story, although it is not exactly historically on point. Colbert plays Barbara, who is labeled a witch for being a grown single woman, a target of jealousy, and wearing a bonnet with a bit of fringe. Colbert delivers a memorable performance while on trial, during which she admits that her mother had also been killed as a witch.
October 23: The Last Witch Hunter (2013) Starring Vin Diesel
Factoid: This film is a typical fantasy action-adventure and vehicle for the popular actor, who said that he created the character of Kaulder from his childhood D&D character. However, the movie's moral construction with no clear lines of good and evil with regards to witches. Humans, even those associated with Christianity, as well as witches are on either side. And, the entire fantasy narrative is steeped in Norse Mythology, a first for witch films. The Witch Queen is the Yggdrasil and embodied wild nature trying to rid the earth of humanity.
October 24: Weird Woman (1944) Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne
Factoid: This film is one of the few witch movies produced during the war time. It is billed as horror but it is far from scary. The film is based loosely on Fritz Leiber's book Conjure Wife (of which there have been several adaptations). In this case, the wife was raised in the South Seas with a "pagan religion". She refuses to give up these "island superstitions" and is labeled a witch. Her professor husband finally convinces her finally to give it all up. "The only magic you need is a generous heart and a steady mind." Weird Woman is steeped in the period's ideology with regard to indigenous populations and the role of women. It was part of Universal Pictures' Inner Sanctum Mystery Series.(p. 74)
October 25: Macbeth (1954/1961) Starring: Judith Anderson and Maurice Evans
Factoid: Shakespeare created three of the most famous and significant witch characters in Western history. The 1954 adaptation of Macbeth was the very first color, live telecast production of any Shakespeare play. It was a hit, and was later recorded on location in Scotland. That recording aired in 1961 and earned Emmy awards. As for the Weird Sisters, the directors kept the famous opening with the crone figures but then, oddly enough, remove them entirely from the rest of the play.
October 26: The Craft (1996) Starring: Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Robin Tunney
Factoid: The Craft is one of the most significant witch films in American film history because it bridges the gap between the Satanic Panic films of the early 1990s and the witch empowerment films of the later part of the decade. As a result, it spoke to many young people who were exploring their spirituality. The Craft is the one of the first films to visually demonstrate witchcraft and nature spirituality, to show the moral ambiguity of practice, to have one of its main witches played by a women of color, and to suggest witches are victims. However, the film is steeped in campy horror tropes that align it with earlier witch films. The Craft is also famous for having a Wiccan High Priestess and member of Covenant of the Goddess as a production adviser. FYI: Rachel True reads tarot cards in Los Angeles now.
October 27: Evil Stepmother (1989) Starring Betty Davis, Barbara Carrera
Factoid: This was Betty Davis' last film; she plays a witch. She abruptly left in the middle of shooting because she allegedly was furious with the production and didn't like the way she was being portrayed or treated. However, other rumors say she needed emergency dental surgery and couldn't continue. Either way she left and the script had to be rewritten to make up for her leaving. They did this by bringing in Carrera's character. Davis died shortly after the film was released.
October 28: The Love Witch (2016) starring Samantha Robinson
Factoid: This is an indie film written and directed by Anna Biller. The film explores the life of Elaine, a witch who happens to also be a socio-path. Like most of the witch films of the period, it paints the witch as a complex female character with an abusive and oppressive past. Biller styled the film after the pulp fiction and horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, and this film is one of the few that comes reasonably close, although still highly stylized to fit the film's motif, to representing some form of modern Witchcraft or occult practice.
October 29: Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989)
Factoid: While Ursula had a similar evil appeal as past Disney villainous witch characters, she was designed as a far greater threat, narratively speaking, to the film's world. Her predecessors were interested in revenge and personal beauty. Ursula wanted to rule the world. That is unique for female witches in any American film. Interestingly, Ursula was designed after the drag queen Divine, and her showstopping number "Poor Unfortunate Souls" makes that very obvious. For these reasons and others, Ursula is one of the most interesting of all Disney characters.
October 30: Pumpkinhead (1988) Starring: Lance Henriksen
Factoid: This indie slasher film takes its cue from the famous moral tale written by Nathanial Hawthorne. It tells the story of a witch in the woods who magically creates a scarecrow with a pumpkin head in order to teach a lesson to the unethical among us. This horror film is not a retelling of the story but rather a re-imagination of the concept in Appalachia. It has strong Christian themes that touch on redemption, revenge, greed, and rage. For a graphic slasher film, it is very well-done. And the witch is fantastic. She is the amoral woodsy folk witch, neither bad nor good, who is there to teach the moral lesson "Be careful what you wish for?" (This film has a cult following that supported a number of sequels. I'm ONLY talking about the original film here.)
October 31: The Wizard of Oz (1939) Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton et. al.
Factoid: Did you think I would pass 31 days without listing this movie? So here it is folks, the most influential American film on the depiction of witches in American culture. If it wasn't for this movie, witches would not be associated with green skin and it was all because of one little technical difficulty.
Check out my book for more on The Wizard of Oz and all the other films and many more.