10 Memorable Movie Witches

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by Drew Taylor
February 14, 2013 2:09 PM
4 Comments
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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.

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4 Comments

  • Michael D Walker | February 11, 2014 3:55 AMReply

    Great summary of cinematic witches! Have to admit I've never even heard of "The Woods" so I will definitely have to see that just for Patricia Clarkson & Bruce Campbell. Thoroughly agree with "I Married A Witch" and Veronica Lake though I'm rather biased towards it given it's based off of Thorne Smith's novel "The Passionate Witch" and I run the website dedicated to Thorne Smith.

    Michael
    Thorne Smith

  • jimmiescoffee | February 15, 2013 11:08 PMReply

    great list. a lot of underrated stuff here especially 'the witches'

  • Arch | February 14, 2013 4:44 PMReply

    I would definitely put Suspiria in the list even though the witch is more like a distant/dormant menace (like the Blair witch). I think I would change Campbell for Fairuza Balke in The Craft... maybe even change Kiki (although I love that movie) for the twin witches Yubaba/Zeniba in Spirited away.
    But it's a neat list overall don't get me wrong (kudos for Warlock and the Rene Clair movie). It's just that like any other list it's always tempting to add more and more (Helen Mirren in Excalibur, Cassandra Gava has a short yet iconic scene in Conan etc.)

  • Neil | February 14, 2013 3:50 PMReply

    Er, Emma Watson's Hermione from the Harry Potter series? The character is better in the novels, but still, and Watson is really great in Prisoner of Azkaban and the Deathly Hallows movies.

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