Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back at Starbucks, the shelves at CVS are sagging under the weight of snack-size candy bars, and Party City is relevant again. Yes, autumn is upon us, which means two very important things: one, for Halloween costumes, it’s time to decide whether you or your boyfriend is going to be Miley Cyrus to the other’s Robin “Beetlejuice” Thicke. And second, it’s time for another season of FX’s deliciously unhinged American Horror Story.
This year’s season is subtitled “Coven” and the show is tackling several traditions of witchcraft in America: the European witches of Puritan times in the Northeast (the “Salem witches”) and the Haitian witches of the American South (the “voodoo witches”). The show is pitting them against each other in New Orleans, and it’s going to be a hell of a showdown. To prepare us for the bloody battle, I’ve drawn up a list of essential witch films to prepare for all the spell-casting, shade-throwing fun. Enjoy!
Probably the seminal “modern” witch film, Rosemary’s Baby demonstrates how witches could be alive and thriving in present-day New York City with diabolical effectiveness. It doesn’t hurt that Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is a bit of an idiot.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Commonly known as “the movie where Bill Pullman gets his junk nailed to a chair,” this is the movie where Bill Pullman gets his junk nailed to a chair. It’s also one of the few contemporary American films to focus on Haitian voodoo, specifically the idea that people can be turned into zombies using various potions and drugs. It’s supposedly based on a true story.
Witches and wizards of course were pretty much the biggest thing of the last fifteen years, thanks to this series of books and films. But it’s interesting how little witchery seeped into pop culture by way of other witchcraft-themed projects (The Wizards of Waverly Place and The Secret Circle are the only two that jump to mind) – were people afraid to go up against wee Harry?
Ah, The Craft… one of the most beloved teen horror films of the ’90s, this camp explosion of Girl Power-infused witchery and bitchery (from gay writer/director Andrew Fleming) is a total riot. Given the basic setup of AHS: Coven – a group of 4 teen witches fighting for survival against one or more foes – I’d expect plenty of references to this one.
Considered by many to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, Dario Argento’s hallucinatory adult fairy tale is set an an elite dance school in Europe where students are being picked off one by one by some sinister force. This was actually the first film in a trilogy by Argento about witches that included Inferno and Mother of Tears, but it’s by far the best – the hushed suspense sequences contrast beautifully with the explosive, jarring score and the lurid colors make for a stylized nightmare unlike no other.
Burn, Witch, Burn! (aka Night of the Eagle)
Based on the 1942 novel Conjure Wife, this underseen gem peels back the genteel veneer of academia to reveal a hotbed of supernatural backstabbing. A professor discovers that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) believes that she is a witch and has been putting charms and spells all over their house to protect him from competition in the faculty – when he insists that she remove them, things start to go very wrong. Definitely worth checking out on a chilly October evening.
This unrepentantly nasty low-budget 1968 film charted the torture-happy exploits of a 17th-century doctor who used his self-proclaimed status as a witch hunter to exploit people. Vincent Price stars as the titular witchfinder, and it’s a notable role for him in that it’s deadly serious, without a hint of the arched-eyebrow camp that defined his onscreen persona. Worth a watch for a taste of just how bloodthirsty people were about the concept of witches and witchcraft, and the lengths to which they would go to weed out a potential witch.
The Worst Witch
The first half of the title also applies to the film itself, but Tim Curry pulls it out of the gutter with his ridiculous musical numbers (with an assist from Charlotte Rae). I’ve included this one here because it also centers on a school for witches.
Infamous for its “Top That!” white girl rap number, Teen Witch is a high-waisted late-’80s time capsule like no other. Robin Lively (sister to Blake) discovers she’s a witch and uses her powers to become popular and bag the hot football quarterback. Sounds good to me!
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
While I can’t imagine that much of anything from this goofball sitcom will find its way into the rough fabric of AHS: Coven, I guess that Sabrina, her two totally not-lesbian witch aunts and her bitchy talking cat, Salem, do deserve a place here.
The Skeleton Key
The Skeleton Key is a decent supernatural thriller that could have been brilliant thanks to a ghoulish premise (a young hospice nurse may be the only person between a dying man’s soul and evil voodoo witches), a killer location (the Louisiana bayou), and a diabolical twist ending. As it is, this Kate Hudson vehicle is just okay, but it’s worth watching for both its discussion of voodoo and its sadly unrealized potential.
Venom pretty much sucks, but this tepid supernatural teen slasher from gay horror wonderkind Kevin Williamson did at least try to scratch the surface of voodoo witchcraft. Granted, in doing so it was pretty backhanded to the film’s few black characters (spoiler alert: they all die!). Never heard of this one? That’s because it was released right after Hurricane Katrina, and the distributor basically sank it in its swamp boat.
A Halloween mainstay for many, this ridiculous but admittedly pretty enjoyable tween fantasy comedy does at least give us the amazing gay-icon teamup of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Nijimy as a trio of witches hell-bent on revenge.
It’s kind of amazing that the most disturbing movie on this list is one of the few that was made specifically for kids, but such is The Witches, notoriously edgy auteur Nicolas Roeg’s batshit crazy adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel. In addition to the nightmare fodder above, consider Exhibit B:
… and Exhibit WTF:
These moments of mind-melting bizarreness, an iconic performance from Anjelica Huston and fantastic effects from Jim Henson helped to make this freaky flick – about a boy who uncovers an underground convention of witches – a cult classic.
The Witches of Eastwick
This movie is fantastic. Seriously – it’s funny, it’s nasty, it’s inventive, and it still holds up today under the weight of Cher’s hair, Susan Sarandon’s shoulderpads and Jack Nicholson’s spare tire. A comedic yet still relatively dark spin on witchery in the suburbs, this notoriously troubled production may be best remembered for the always scene-stealing Veronica Cartwright’s infamous cherry-vomiting scene.
Disney’s The Princess and the Frog
It’s a shame that the movie heavily touted as “Disney’s first black princess film” was a somewhat qualified success, but I still enjoyed it immensely thanks to its hallucinogenic horror-tinged imagery and the over-the-top antics of that sissy alligator. It’s both a modern and decidedly American fairy tale and a raucous love letter to New Orleans.
The Wizard of Oz
Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is a character so iconic and beloved that not even Oz the Great and Powerful could destroy it. And of course I don’t even need to mention the film’s significance to generations of gay men. Margaret Hamilton’s mean green mother from over the rainbow is the grande dame of the broomstick set.
Ah, Samantha Stevens – how we loved thee and your various Darrins! Bewitched brought witchcraft into the American living room via fishing line and poofs of smoke. Sure, the show was really a typical in-law sitcom with mystical set dressing, but it deserves mention (as does Elizabeth Montgomery’s gold-star status as an LGBT ally).
This notorious supernatural thriller is famous for essentially derailing Cosby kid Lisa Bonet’s career thanks to an extended, graphic, and bloody sex scene she shares with pre-curse Mickey Rourke. (She also has a memorable moment where she kills a chicken and pours its blood all over herself in a voodoo frenzy, which also probably wasn’t exactly embraced by the Huxtable clan.) It’s a dark and rather unpleasant tale, but it makes great use of its New Orleans locations and works well as a contemporary and very adult noir.
This hilariously over-the-top 1981 Movie of the Week that pitted Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson against The Waltons’ Mary Beth McDonough is a clear inspiration for The Craft and features one of the greatest climactic witch-fights ever, in the high school’s wood shop. I think we’ll see some of this kind of spell-enhanced mean girl shenanigans in AHS: Coven.
The Blair Witch Project
Witches had a surprise comeback at the turn of the century thanks to this innovative and extremely profitable indie flick, which scared the pants off of millions and kickstarted a “found footage” horror craze that continues today. The non-found-footage sequel, Book of Shadows, was universally loathed, but it scores points for digging deeper into the Blair Witch’s wicked ways and for getting Jeffrey Donovan’s pants off.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
And of course, we couldn’t go without mentioning Buffy’s Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), television’s first Jewish lesbian witch. Willow’s magical prowess didn’t emerge until a few seasons into the series, but she ultimately became one of the Buffyverse’s most powerful beings.
So those are just a few dozen of the best and brightest broomstick rides around. What are your favorites?