Halloween is upon us, and that means it’s time for Dark Side Cinema to take a look at some disturbing flicks with a spooky theme: witches! There are quite a few movies both about witches and featuring witchy characters, but few fit the specific criteria needed for Dark Side Cinema: relative obscurity and disturbing, uncomfortable content. This list is not entirely comprehensive, of course, but it’s a good sampling of some unusual and unnerving frightening fare for this, the greatest of holidays.
Häxan (NR, 1922)
Häxan is a Swedish and Danish documentary film about witchcraft throughout the ages. It starts with the origins of medieval pagan witchcraft and explores the kinds of torture visited upon those witches. There are some interesting fantasy sequences, including one in which witches are worshipping the devil and literally kissing his big red behind.
This is a silent black and white film and sometimes the style works for it, sometimes against it. Because of the age of the film, sometimes it is difficult to see what is going on in particular scenes. The Criterion release is much crisper but still has problems with white balance here and there. It is important to note that there are two versions of the film: the 1922 original and a 1967 version with the original footage but William S. Burroughs narrating with new music. The narration is weird and actually detracts from the film. The new music is also really awful, so the original is preferable.
What makes Häxan particularly disturbing is a segment on torture methods in the medieval era and how they were used to get witches to confess to their “sins”. There is very little gore but just seeing demonstrations of how these barbaric devices worked is bad enough. One of the actresses asks to have the thumb screws tried on her – she begins to confess all sorts of things within moments. The movie notes that anyone would confess to just about anything while being tortured in such horrible ways, which is an interesting bit of commentary from a more conservative time.
There’s also a section at the end that discusses how the behavior of women being tried for witchcraft is similar to the “hysterical” behavior of “modern women” (in the early 1920’s). While there are some good moments that debunk witchy myths and are pro-woman, this last bit is pretty backwards-thinking and disturbing in a completely different kind of way.
What kind of witches? Pagan, Satanic, not-witches-at-all. A little bit of everything.
Entertainment Value: 5/10 Quite informative for those with an interest in the topic, but it is a documentary and a silent film. This isn’t something you put on for funsies.
Appropriate for: Historians, witchcraft aficionados.
How disturbing is it? Mild. It takes some imagination to really be bothered by most of the film because the torture devices are never truly used (except for the thumb screws) and the age of the film makes it difficult to connect with.
The Devils (X, 1971)
Ken Russell’s The Devils is based on the 1952 Aldous Huxley non-fiction book The Devils of Loudun and the 1960 John Whiting play, The Devils. All three works are based on actual events that happened in the town of Loudun in 17th century France. There’s lots of crazy historical stuff going on, and Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII are characters within the story. (Though I have to say that Christopher Logue’s Richelieu is nothing compared to Tim Curry’s version in Disney’s 1993 version of The Three Musketeers.)
The story is pretty interesting. The Catholic-supporting Louis, at the behest of Richelieu, is sending men to remove the walls and battlements from towns all around France to prevent Protestant revolts. The town of Loudun is to be left alone, however, because of a promise Louis made to the priesthood there, led by the enigmatic Urbain Grandier (played fabulously by Oliver Reed). Grandier’s kind of a playboy and he believes in some pretty Protestant-leaning ideals for a Catholic. For instance, he doesn’t believe in the whole “no sex for priests” things and gets a local noblewoman pregnant. He also gets married to a beautiful young nun, which sets the creepy Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne, into a rage. She has had all kinds of creepy sexual feelings for Grandier for a long time but he doesn’t even know she exists. (This may be partially because she is disfigured with severe scoliosis that leaves her hunchbacked.)
Jeanne teams up with the father of the pregnant noblewoman and Richelieu’s henchmen to punish Grandier by pretending to be possessed by demons. She claims that he did it to her and shortly thereafter all of the other nuns follow suit. There is a giant crazy nun orgy that lasts for days and eventually even King Louis comes to see what’s going on. Things just go straight into madness from there.
There are a number of versions of this movie with various bits and pieces cut out or left in. Some of the most disturbing scenes are even cut down in the X version, such as an extended scene of Sister Jeanne masturbating with a burnt human femur and a dream sequence in which Grandier is crucified and Jeanne washes his feet with her hair. Needless to say, some religious groups were extremely upset.
This film is filled to the brim with bizarre, over-the-top characters, and that’s part of what makes it work. Everything is turned up to 11. Louis is a maniac, shooting a man in a bird costume for sport. Sister Jeanne is demented and bitter, having all kinds of sick dreams about Grandier and condemning him to a horrible death for selfish reasons. The most batshit character, however, is Father Pierre Barre, the exorcist and witch-expert who comes to Loudun to “investigate”. He forces Sister Jeanne to undergo brutal tests with bloody results, coerces the other nuns into hysteria, and is otherwise just absolutely out of his mind. Portrayed by Michael Gothard, who went on to portray a Bond villain, he is impossible to look away from.
The set design is bizarre and surreal, with lots of sharp edges and high-contrast colors. Despite being a period piece, nothing about this film looks accurate. As an aesthetic, however, it works. Despite being rather old and having been cut, recut, and re-released so many times it’s amazing there’s any celluloid left, this film looks damn good. It’s visually arresting, emotionally arresting, and the sound design ain’t bad either.
What kind of witches? None, technically, but they’re accused Satanic witches.
Entertainment Value: 8/10 There’s some gallows humor, lots of thrills and chills, and I was genuinely invested in the story.
Appropriate for: Arthouse fans, anyone who likes their history a bit ridiculous, horny teenage boys. (Pasty white boobs everywhere, ladies and gentlemen.)
How disturbing is it? Medium-high. “The Rape of Christ” scene is pretty rough. Grandier’s execution is absolutely brutal (and super-realistic considering the effects at the time). It’s the little things that make it disturbing, however, like the nobleman who helped orchestrate everything because Grandier knocked up his daughter holding his newborn grandson at Grandier’s execution and telling him how lucky he is – ” Lucky little bastard! It’s not every day Baby sees Daddy burn to death.”
Suspiria (X, 1977)
If The Devils is visually arresting, Suspiria is a masterwork. Dario Argento has quite a few films about witches, but Suspiria is the best. It tells the story of an American ballet student, Suzy, who comes to Germany to study at an old and prestigious ballet school. She quickly realizes that there is some spooky stuff going on and eventually discovers that the headmasters are a coven of evil witches.
The opening sequence is famous for throwing the viewer directly into the fray as two ballet students fight for their lives against unknown forces. It’s quite violent but gorgeously shot, which can be said for the entire film. Argento uses color to his advantage, employing lots of highly saturated colors and every kind of colored light a person can imagine. Blood isn’t blood red, it’s neon-freaking-ketchup red. Scenes that would have taken place in darkness are often green, red, or blue. The aesthetic is sort of Stanley-Kubrick-on-acid and it’s brilliant.
The story is good enough – the visuals are plenty to carry the film. The acting ranges from terrible to okay, but again, it doesn’t matter because this movie is a full-blown sensory experience. The acting was only bad enough in one place to take me out of the movie and it was at the very beginning, so it didn’t matter as much. There are some really weird moments that don’t make a ton of sense, like a scene that focuses heavily on maggots invading the attic because someone left rotting sausage up there, but suspending disbelief is pretty easy with this film.
The interplay between the girls studying ballet is a lot of fun and the characters are fleshed out enough to actually care about, which matters when they start dropping left and right. So many horror movies get this detail wrong, making their characters bland cardboard cutouts that really don’t matter – Suspiria makes you care whether characters die or not. It also makes you really hate and fear the villains, which makes the whole thing that much more enjoyable.
In addition to being gorgeous, having decent character development and being just downright entertaining, Suspiria is also really, really scary. It’s all kinds of gross and gory, there’s lots of spilled blood, and Argento is a master at ratcheting up suspense until you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack. There is one scene with razor wire that is easily one of the most viscerally uncomfortable things I have ever watched.
What kind of witches? They never really specify. They sacrifice young girls and use blood magic but there’s not much discussion of their craft otherwise.
Entertainment Value: 9/10 This film is scary, suspenseful, funny at times, stunning to look at, spooky to listen to, and best of all? It’s fun.
Appropriate for: Anyone who likes horror. Get back to your roots, kids.
How disturbing is it? Medium. It’s really more scary than disturbing but there are moments that put this above and beyond your typical slash-fest.
The Lords of Salem (R, 2012)
Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem is like Suspiria in that it’s pretty and the story isn’t all that great. Where Salem falls short, however, is in keeping things moving. The film is about a radio DJ named Heidi, played by Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon, who slowly unravels a mystery about her heritage and the Salem witch trials. The whole thing is set up on interesting ideas, including a journal left by a witchhunter, prophecies about Heidi’s role in witchcraft, and how sound/music can be used to influence people, but nothing is executed all that well.
Sheri Moon is okay in the lead role – she is much better as Baby Firefly in The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses, though at least she is better here than she is as Michael Myers’ mother in the Halloween remakes. She’s likeable enough and sympathetic, which is good because she starts going through all kinds of horrible and crazy stuff, including a drug abuse relapse. Even though her acting isn’t as good as some of the supporting actors, Sheri Moon is charismatic and it works enough to pull her through.
Where the film absolutely does work is in style. The atmosphere is creepy from the start, everything feels very heavy and full of impending doom, and the cinematography and soundtrack are fantastic. There are some shots, especially during dream/fantasy sequences, that are completely brilliant. The ending is insane and makes zero sense, but it’s lovely to look at. Many critics hated how the film fell apart – I enjoyed the disintegration.
The biggest problem with the movie is that it is a slow burn with no real payoff. Long stretches go by where nothing happens except mediocre dialogue, and these scenes aren’t particularly pretty to look at either. When this movie shines, it shines, but when it’s trying to tell a story, it falls flat.
What kind of witches? Salem witches. There’s lots of Satanic imagery as well.
Entertainment Value: 5/10 If you broke this movie down into the entertaining parts and the boring parts, it’s about 50/50.
Appropriate for: Fans of Zombies, stoners, people looking for something pretty to stare at.
How disturbing is it? Mild-medium. The most disturbing bits revolve around real-life traumas, like Heidi’s drug addiction and relapse. These parts are much more soul-rending than anything supernatural that happens.
I have to mention American Horror Story: Coven, but I cannot include it on this list because it is not a movie. Coven is brilliant and explores all kinds of witchcraft, from Satanic to Vodoun to Wicca and it does it with the kind of style we’ve come to expect from AHS. Anyone who likes witches or witch stories needs to watch this pinnacle of spooky sorcery.
I also feel that I should mention the witch in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. The movie was pretty awful, mainstream, and not disturbing enough to warrant a full review here, but the scenes with the witch were definitely the scariest parts of the movie and they were absolutely disgusting. I like disgusting.
I love movies about witches, from The Wizard of Oz to the kinds of things on this list, so I’m always on the lookout for more. Are these the cream of the crop for the truly disturbing witchy watch? Or is there something I might have missed? Let me know in the comments, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN.