This week saw the premiere of “American Horror Story: Coven” and as I suspected, it was awesome. I may be a bit biased as I have enjoyed pretty much every episode of the series from the beginning. And now, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are tackling the witch genre in a different light than most other television fare. In today’s TV landscape, it seems witches have had a steady presence. Not as much as, say, vampires or werewolves, but they’ve been there sprinkled about. However, these characters seem more akin to the silly costumes one would find at Target this time of year than something truly frightening. What “American Horror Story: Coven” has already done is hearken back to the classic concept of a witch (or shaman) and show us again how these characters can be gritty, dark, devious, and human.
Since “AHS” has a history of being referential to genre films of the past, I felt it was a perfect time to showcase some of the best witch-themed horror films out there. Take note: I’m sure some these will find their ways into this season of “AHS” in some way or another.
The Craft (1996)
Alright, don’t look at me that way. I know I said “Best Films” in the paragraph above and then throw this film at you. Give me a second to explain. There are some similarities to the group of girls in the new season of “AHS” and these four outcasts from The Craft. These aesthetics are pretty much where it ends (so far). I threw this one in the mix because 1996 goth me was in love with Fairuza Balk. And for some reason, back in 1996, I knew way too many black haired girls who claimed to be Pagan. It’s kind of nice to look at this now and giggle at the absurdity.
Black Sunday (1960)
Director Mario Bava delivers a lovely mix of witchcraft and vampire lore in this classic horror film that not only introduced the world to Barbara Steele but brought Bava to the main stage as well. For a film that is 53 years old, its overall influence in the horror genre was huge! The story here follows a vengeful witch and her fiendish servant as they return from the grave and go on a gory mission to possess the body of the witch’s beautiful look-alike descendant. The only hope are the girl’s brother and a dashing doctor who stand in her way.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Oh look, a movie about witches that is based on historical fact! The Witchfinder General takes place in the lovely English countryside which is torn in civil unrest as the Royalists fight the Parliamentary Party for control. The people get distracted from rational thought (conflicts tend to be distracting) and allow those with sadistic tendencies to take power. Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, and he is one of these men. Hopkins places himself as a government official who is sent to destroy evil; he does this by gaining sexual favors from women, pulling false confessions from witches to earn him money, and gaining more power in doing so. Make no mistake, this film is a wee bit brutal for its time.
The Devils (1971)
Oh look, another film based on historical events! Director Ken Russell’s The Devils tells the story of the witch trials and subsequent tribulations of a 17th Century French priest who is out to protect his city from the corrupt establishment of Cardinal Richelieu. Oliver Reed stars at Father Urbain Grandier and is brilliant in the part. Insanity soon takes place when Grandier is accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun. If I haven’t sold you yet, I suppose I should also mention that this movie features masturbating nuns. Sexually repressed, duh!
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The granddaddy of the found footage genre, The Blair Witch Project was quite the phenomenon back in 1999. The concept behind the film is simple. Documentary footage left behind by three missing film students is found and tells the story of their trip into the Maryland woods to find answers behind the Blair Witch legend. What’s great about this film is their use of the “less is more” mentality of film making. Sure, the shaky cam is a bit annoying and there’s a lot of running around involved but when the sh*t starts hitting the fan, things are left up to the audience’s imagination at times which really elevates the story and experience. When the film came out, many believed it to be real footage. So that’s saying something.
The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)
I bet you thought I forgot about voodoo huh? Well, I didn’t! Voodoo culture is touched upon in the new season of “AHS,” so why not highlight a voodoo movie that scared the crap out of me when I was younger? The Serpent and the Rainbow is that movie. It’s directed by Wes Craven and stars Bill Pullman as Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who travels to Haiti with the intention of investigating a story about an alleged herbal concoction that brings the recently deceased back to life. Sure, one could call this a zombie film, but it’s much more than that. Based on the book by the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, the story here is loosely based on actual events. But I’m sure Wes Craven made it creepier.
The Witches (1990)
Leave it to Roald Dahl to create a piece of entertainment intended for children that would in turn scare the pants off of children. The Witches was the last film Jim Henson worked on before his death and tells the story of young Luke Eveshim who learns about witches from his grandmother Helga. They are evil demonic women who destroy children. What makes matters worse is that this story turns out to be real as Luke stumbles into a witch convention. He must then stop them whatever the cost, even if he is turned into a mouse. I’ve never looked at Anjelica Huston the same way.
The House Of The Devil (2009)
Easily one of my favorite horror films from the past five years, Ti West’s The House Of The Devil takes us back to the early 1980s. College student Samantha Hughes takes an odd babysitting job on the night of a full lunar eclipse. It’s her slow realization (and ours) that those that hired her are harboring a crazy secret – they are planning to sacrifice her in a satanic ritual. While it is definitely a slow burn, the film delivers amazing performances by brother Tom Noonan and tuba enthusiast AJ Bowen.
The Wicker Man (1973)
First, I must go on record and tell you to NOT watch the 2006 Nic Cage remake. You’d really be doing yourself an injustice and I’d have to flog you in my mind. Okay, now that I got that out of the way, the 1973 version of Wicker Man directed by Robin Hardy follows a police sergeant into a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl. The townsfolk all claim the young lady never existed and soon the story unfolds. What we have here is a town full of religious zealots who partake in ancient Celtic Pagan rituals. Oh, and check out that young Christopher Lee!
The first in the “Mother Of Tears” trilogy, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is probably his most successful film ever. The film follows American ballet-dancer Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) as she moves to Germany to attend a posh ballet academy. Following a series of gruesome murders and interactions with some weird students, Banyon slowly begins to discover the truth behind the academy and its occult beginnings. What follows is a highly stylized hallucinatory trip into the discovery of and fight against the evil that is the coven’s founding mother aka The Mother Of Sighs aka The Black Queen. Also worth noting is the classic soundtrack by Goblin. Go take a listen, won’t you?
Well, there’s my list. I know there are still many other witchcraft films out there that I did not mention. What are some of your favorites films of dark magic and witchery? Tell me in the comments below.
And be sure to tune in to “American Horror Story: Coven” on FX every Wednesday night at 10pm.
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