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10 Memorable Movie Witches

Features
by Drew Taylor
February 14, 2013 2:09 PM
4 Comments
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While witches in the movies have generally been consigned to pictures we'd rather forget, it's actually pretty remarkable how diversely they've been used. From comedies to teen movies to even animated fare, the witch has provided some creative source material for writers willing to go the extra mile. And more than a few of these characters have cast their spell on us.

This weekend, "Beautiful Creatures" arrives in theaters nationwide, concerning a young witch (or, in their vernacular, "caster") who falls in love with a teenage human. The movie -- which isn't that great -- got us thinking about broomriders, and which ones would be worth revisiting again. So below, check out our choices for the ten most memorable movie witches, and then tell us in the comments section who your favorites are. 

Anjelica Huston in "The Witches" (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)
In what would prove to be his last great movie, Nicolas Roeg, the auteur behind psychosexual horror shows "Don't Look Now" and "Bad Timing" (as well as the meditative "Walkabout" and whatever the hell "The Man Who Fell To Earth" is), adapted the Roald Dahl novel about an evil coven of witches and the little boy that runs afoul of their evil scheme (they turn him into an adorable mouse). One of the last movies personally overseen by Jim Henson (the other was the MuppetVision 3D movie for Orlando's Walt Disney World), "The Witches" is genuinely frightening and exhilaratingly weird, thanks mostly to a show-stopping lead performance by Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch (yes, that's actually her name), who, in her witchy form, is absolutely a triumph of make-up wizardry and maybe the most indelible cinematic witch (at least from a design standpoint) this side of "Wizard of Oz" (more on that in a minute). Our favorite feature? The witches' square feet. The embellishment is such a bizarre Dahl-ism, it could only be brought to life by the brilliantly fearless Roeg.

Margaret Hamilton in "Wizard of Oz" (Victor Fleming, 1939)
The most iconic cinematic witch has got to be Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in Victor Fleming's immortal "Wizard of Oz." Her skin a sickly pea soup green, her fingers elongated talons, her raspy voice calling that she'll get you (and your little dog too), the Wicked Witch of the West is the grand empress behind an army of winged monkeys and goonish guards, who has it in for Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her band of merry misfits. (Melted by water though? Kind of a weak way to go.) "The Wizard of Oz" is a classic for a number of reasons, but it's hard to pinpoint a more memorable character than the Wicked Witch of the West – she's someone little kids are both afraid of and hopelessly drawn to. She is also, along with Judy, something of a gay icon. While Disney has "Oz The Great And Powerful" in theaters early next month, at least as far as witches go, Hamilton's performance is going to be a tough act to follow.

Patricia Clarkson in "The Woods" (Lucky McGee, 2006)
Long before Darren Aronofsky made his arty Oscar-winning riff on "Suspiria" with "Black Swan," indie horror director Lucky McGee mined the same material for "The Woods," his super smart, super scary, woefully under-seen gem about a girls' boarding school in the '60s that's lorded over by malevolent forces. There's no force more malevolent than Patricia Clarkson's Ms. Traverse, a head mistress with a dark-ass secret (hint: she's a fucking witch). What makes her so scary is that she at first seems to be perfectly sweet and amiable, but this is before she's sending evil trees to attack Bruce Campbell and murdering students (Agnes Bruckner, as the student most psychically traumatized, nicely channels Sissy Spacek in "Carrie" as well as Jessica Harper in "Suspiria"). While "The Woods" falls apart as the weirdness starts to pile up, Clarkson is a genuinely wonderful witch – the kind that you could imagine luring children into a gingerbread house or, in this case, strictly running a girls' boarding school. 

Barbara Steele in "Black Sunday" (Mario Bava, 1960)
Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's game-changing chiller "Psycho," Mario Bava's shocking "Black Sunday" stars a truly magnetic Barbara Steele as an ancient witch put to death, who comes back 200 years later to exact her bloody revenge on her original killers' descendants. Also: she's kind of a vampire, which is pretty cool. Filmed in velvety black-and-white, "Black Sunday" was a sensation upon its initial release (the theatrical trailer intoned, "Not since Dracula stalked the earth has the world known so terrifying a day… or night…"), daringly up front about its sexuality, violence, and religion (Satanism is gleefully practiced). Steele, as the ageless witch, is both scary and incredibly sexy, two prerequisites for top-tier witches. (Unsurprisingly, she became an instant cult icon.) She not only gets to kill people but also bring them back to life. Now that's power!

Julian Sands in "Warlock" (Steve Miner, 1989)
In this surprisingly solid low-budget shocker, Julian Sands, a veritable Marianas Trench of charm, plays a witch who, sort of like Barbara Steele in "Black Sunday," is prosecuted for his witchy crimes in the past (led by a witch hunter played by none other than Richard Grant), but before he can get slain, Satan (yes, this is serious business) shows up and zaps Sands into the future (Grant follows him through the wormhole). The stuff in the present is kind of dopey (it involves a Necronomicon-style magical book and a pair of innocent kids caught in the magical crosshairs), but "Warlock" is an interesting intersection of fish-out-of-water comedy and pagan horror movie. Of course, the whole thing would fall apart if not for the lead performance by Sands (who would reprise the role in the 1993 sequel "Warlock: Armageddon"), a beguiling mix of menace and danger that does a lot to camouflage the silly script and subpar special effects. The score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is admittedly pretty great too, as is Grant's scenery-chomping secondary role, which would require a very powerful spell to contain.

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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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