Why wait until November to live deliciously?
If you’re a horror fan (or a Luca Guadagnino or Tilda Swinton fan), chances are you’ve already seen the new Suspiria trailer a few times. The fresh take on an Italian classic doesn’t hit theaters until November, but it’s already garnered plenty of early buzz (early footage at a CinemaCon luncheon led to nauseous praise) and scrutiny (the color palette features less Argento neon and more shades of gray) from horror aficionados and reboot detractors. Regardless of whether it recalls the original or is a complete diversion, the Suspiria redux will join the ranks of one of the greatest subgenres of storytelling: witch movies.
Whether they’re funny or horrifying, heartwarming or tragic, stories about magic-practicing women have been a cultural mainstay long before the advent of film. In both Macbeth and Greek mythology, three powerful ladies foresee and shape the future using sorcery. These trinities of influential, mysterious women still crop up in pop culture today, along with references to historical superstitions like those that were at play in Salem and medieval Europe. Most witches on screen are clearly figments of popular imagination–they seem to practice an unlikely mash-up of Wicca, ceremonial magick, and Hollywood-ified Satanism–but the ideas they stand for and the themes their stories address are real and powerful.
Sisterhood, womanhood, female friendship, queer love, and matriarchal power are boldly displayed (with either pride or fear depending on the movie) in these stories, making witches an ideal vessel for radical storytelling. Fictional witches, like most supernatural beings, have long since been a stand-in for “the other,” and their stories have become the stories of the marginalized. Women, people of color (although it should be noted that popular witch movies are still overwhelmingly white), the LGBT community, and more have all found a voice in these portrayals of ostracized people with unrecognized talent who are able to claim their power for better or worse.
When (if?) you finally tire of watching the Suspiria trailer, give one of these witchy flicks a try:
The original Suspiria is often celebrated as one of the best horror movies of all time for a reason. Dario Argento’s gripping, Giallo-influenced film is a nightmare drenched in vivid colors and shot with gorgeous precision. For the uninitiated, the movie follows a wide-eyed American ballet dancer as she uncovers a series of murders at a German dance studio. Lush, mysterious, and picture-perfect, it’s no wonder this one’s hailed as a masterpiece.
The Witches (1990)
This movie didn’t quite connect with audiences when it was released, which is a shame because a Jim Henson-produced adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic (starring Anjelica Huston, no less) is just the type of off-the-wall ‘90s filmmaking that we’re all missing right about now. The practical effects of this movie, which is about a boy who’s turned into a mouse by kid-hating witches, are a little dated and strange, but it’s all in good fun. Dahl’s humor still shines through, and the movie would make a mean double feature with another Jim Henson production like The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.
The Love Witch (2016)
If there’s such a thing as an instant cult classic, Anna Biller’s candy-colored homage to ‘60s movies is it. The Love Witch is a feminist take on gender and relationships told through the lens of a stylish Californian witch (Samantha Robinson) named Elaine who can’t seem to stop murdering her lovers. It’s billed as a horror comedy, but it’s light on horror and heavy on comedy. Robinson is a revelation as Elaine, a resourceful, confident neo-femme fatale with wonderfully arch delivery.
This Swedish silent film is essentially an early documentary, although its dramatic reenactment sequences court horror and initiated some genre habits that are still alive today. The film is surprisingly progressive, revisiting periods of historical witch-hunts within the context of superstitions and limited medical understanding. Häxan’s greatest strength is its gorgeous design: detailed masks, costumes, and sets make the things that go bump in the night come alive in memorable, impressive ways.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
A masterwork of paranoia and suspense, Polanski’s classic is every bit as essential today as the day it came out. Mia Farrow absolutely owns the screen as a mom-to-be suffering through a pregnancy from hell, who suspects she’s being manipulated by the people around her, including her husband, upstairs neighbors, and doctor. In this saga of forced female helplessness, gaslighting has never been scarier, and when the finale comes around–even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before–it hits hard and stays with you.
I Am Not a Witch (2018)
Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut is still on the festival circuit in many places, but if it comes to a theater near you, don’t miss it. The satire blends fact with fiction in its imagined version of Zambia, where a young girl is banished to a witches camp after being the only witness to a village accident. The girl’s witch-hood remains to be seen, but her experiences in the camp (where women are tied to long white ribbons so they don’t fly off) are mesmerizing thanks to Nyoni’s poetic direction and ability to shift nimbly between lighter and darker tones.
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)
As a Scooby-Doo aficionado, I feel confident in my claim that Zombie Island is the best of the franchises’ animated movies. Despite the title, Mystery Inc.’s culprits in this Louisiana-set adventure are actually a trio of Southern cat witch shapeshifters. You read that correctly: this is the first Scooby-Doo outing where the bad guys turn out to be real supernatural beings rather than old-man-so-and-so. The whole story has an especially dark tone, reinventing some of the gang’s mythology while also building up the central mystery in inventive ways. Plus, these three witches–Civil War-era, voodoo-practicing Southern belles–are iconic among the Cartoon Network-loving crowd.
The Witch (2016)
If there’s been a more commanding, stylistically assured debut than Robert Eggers’ Puritan-era thriller in recent memory, I must have missed it. A folktale about the subtle but sure threat of womanhood in the face of religious superstition, The Witch is a feast for the senses despite its brittle and increasingly lifeless setting. Dangerously wide open shots draw viewers’ eyes to the screen’s corner, then away as we anticipate the appearance of some disturbing specter, all while an oppressively spooky score works overtime to quicken the pulse. Anya Taylor-Joy is riveting as Thomasin, a teen girl who comes under suspicion from her banished family after losing her infant brother to an unseen kidnapper.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
A fixture on the Disney channel and on ABC Family’s (now Freeform) 13 Nights of Halloween, this initially poorly received horror comedy is now a Halloween must-watch for a certain generation of viewers. Set in Salem, the cult favorite tells the story of three witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, all nearly unrecognizable in wigs and varying levels of hag makeup) who wreak joyful havoc after being accidentally summoned by a mopey boy virgin. This one admittedly has little appeal to those who didn’t grow up with it, but in the past 25 years, it’s gained enough popularity to warrant talk of a potential sequel.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Witches don’t get more stereotypical than the hag at the center of Sam Raimi’s epic gross-out. With origins that appear vaguely Romani and the same moniker as a Greek she-demon, Ganush (later called Lamia in demon form) is a poor-woman-turned-vengeful-spirit who just won’t leave this darned bank loan official alone. Marking Raimi’s much-anticipated return to horror post-Spiderman, Drag Me to Hell is an orchestra of gore and disgust composed mostly of bugs and rot and blood and fluid. Though her character is not fleshed out beyond the basics, the witch in question is certainly one of the most formidable characters on this list.
Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
The TV series version of Tales From the Darkside is the perfect ‘80s comfort food entertainment–over-the-top and poorly aged, but binge-able and original nonetheless. In the spirit of other contemporary anthologies like Creepshow, the movie version is a mostly great series of shorts connected by a frame tale. In this case, the connecting thread is that each of these stories is being told by a young boy who’s stalling after being captured by a cannibalistic witch disguised as a preppy housewife-type. The stories themselves are doozies too, with a short Stephen King adaptation and a Steve Buscemi and Christian Slater-led outing among them.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (2011)
Anyone can tell you that witches play a huge part in J.K. Rowling’s omnipresent books, but some of the movie adaptations certainly contain more girl power than others. Although the final film isn’t the series’ best, it includes undeniable moments of badass witching from the likes of Professor McGonagall, Mrs. Weasley, Hermione, and several other clever magical ladies.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A sweet, low-stakes Miyasaki favorite, Kiki’s Delivery Service reimagines witches as cute and child-friendly. Titular hero Kiki rides a broom and has a familiar in the form of a black cat, but that’s about where her similarities to traditional witches of lore end. In this story, Kiki gets a job at a flight-based delivery service specially designed for witch couriers and struggles to get the hang of her newfound responsibilities. The movie contains gentle lessons about follow-through, friendship, and self-care, all while upholding Miyasaki’s trademark sense of wonder and magic.
Practical Magic (1998)
Would it be overkill to call this Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman-starring romantic drama a magical version of Thelma & Louise? Probably, but between the accidental murder of an abuser, deep, naturalistic female bond (this time between sisters), and heartland-courting soundtrack, the comparison isn’t far off. The film, about three generations of magical sisters dealing with the repercussions of a love-related family curse (and either embracing or rejecting their powers in the process), is the kind of lighthearted yet emotionally involving fare that’s perfect for a popcorn movie night with friends. Thanks to a memorable climax, it’s also one of the most slyly feminist and empowering witch movies to date.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In retrospect, this movie is mostly a lot of runny noses and people yelling “JOSH!” At the time of its release, though, it was groundbreaking in a half-dozen different ways, from its shoestring budget with a big payoff, to its found footage format, to a creatively misleading ad campaign. Still, the mythology surrounding the Blair witch is terrifying, and the movie is chock full of indelible, eerie images, like bundles of effigy-like sticks hanging from trees, bits and pieces of a body wrapped in a small, gift-like package, and above all else, that final male figure standing in the corner. At the time, witches hadn’t been scary on screen in awhile, but Blair Witch brought them back.
Beautiful Creatures (2013)
This clever, offbeat exploration of self-determination got lost in a sea of young adult romance adaptations, but it’s a hit around the FSR watercooler. Our own Rob Hunter is a fan, calling the movie “sharp and funny…often beautiful and atmospheric,” while Kate Erbland later went long on why the movie deserves a second chance. Starring a pre-Solo Alden Ehrenreich and with a supporting cast including Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons, this one’s definitely worth rediscovering on Netflix.
The Craft (1996)
The Craft hit theaters ten months before Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit the airwaves, and it’s a shame that one was relegated to cult status while the other gained acclaim. Like Buffy, The Craft explores the depth of teen emotions–along with beauty standards, class status, racism, and toxic masculinity–through the lens of high school girls with supernatural powers. The Craft’s cast is a whos-who of great ‘90s favorites, and much of the movie is excellent. But perhaps it’s for the best that it wasn’t a mondo hit, since its third act undercuts the authenticity of its core female friendships, along with the legitimacy it had previously lent these girls’ problems and desires, in favor of girl-on-girl bitchiness and an unclear lesson on selfishness.
Black Sunday (1960)
Giallo pioneer Mario Bava’s first official directing credit doesn’t quite reach the heights of his later works but lays down plenty of stylish precedent for its horror descendants nonetheless. The story is supposed to be based on Gogol’s “Viy,” but it reads a bit like a female Dracula, complete with suspiciously misplaced corpses, perplexed academic and religious types, and midnight bedside apparitions. In fact, witch Asa Vajda (a wonderfully vampy Barbara Steele) is more of a vampire than a witch, though she’s called the latter throughout the film thanks to a pesky curse she places on her brother’s heritage line. Either way, the film is a well-made, atmospheric trip into the crevices and crypts of Europe that still shines a half-century later.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Everyone’s favorite Scottish cult musical is (if only for the first three-fourths) probably one of the mildest visions of modern paganism on film. Although it’s been billed as horror, much of The Wicker Man’s attention is focused on a group of seemingly peaceful townsfolk dancing around maypoles and generally frolicking in harmony with nature. To a modern audience, hyper-Christian investigator Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) seems like a bit of a wet blanket, but inevitably, his hunches about the darker side of the remote Scottish island’s traditions pay off. The Wicker Man’s ending is one of the most famously unnerving moments in genre history.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This groundbreaking and beloved classic brought so much to the table at the time of its release, but most relevant to this list is its role in the cinematic introduction of the good witch/bad witch dichotomy. The story of Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West has since infiltrated pop culture in the form of homages, parodies, and Broadway plays, but it’s also inspired a deeper view of women. Sure, these two characters are pretty binary, but tons of later films (including plenty on this list) grappled with the good and evil nature that can both vie for attention within a powerful person thanks in part to Oz’s refusal to stick with a single stock image of witchiness.
Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer play a trio of bored and unsatisfied single ladies who become badass witches. Need I say more? Okay, I’ll say a little more. Jack Nicholson plays someone who may or may not be the devil! George Miller directs from a novel by John Updike! It’s sexy, funny, and freaky all at once! Is that enough? If you aren’t sold by this point, there’s no helping you.
Even more witchy movies: The Covenant (2006), Teen Witch (1989), Lords of Salem (2013), Witching and Bitching (2013), The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1979 and 2005), Bewitched (2005), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Halloweentown (1998)