By: Jonah Hoffmann
This blog series is a celebration of witchcraft in cinema and focuses on some of the films that take a more traditional, historically influenced look at the witch and witch trials. When considering witches on-screen, the classic iconography of the green-skinned woman, the pointed hat, and the broomstick often come to mind. However, the history of witchcraft in film is lengthy and varied, with portrayals ranging from the in-humanly beautiful woman dabbling in the occult to the group of deviants looking to resurrect the devil. While any number of these varied depictions can be categorized under the title of cinematic witch, this blog seeks to explore films that include a more direct, historical connection; returning the witch to its metaphorical roots. This is not to say each is a complete work of historical accuracy with minimal creative liberties; but rather, an homage to the true events influencing these stories.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) dir. Piers Haggard
Considered by many to be a quintessential piece of folk horror, the film depicts the 18th century English battle between Enlightenment thinking and the so-called “old ways.” Witchcraft and folk religion battles against modernity and rationalism as the story of the ultimate evil unfolds in the most ordinary place.
Set in a rural village, an unlucky farmer plowing his field comes across a mysterious skull covered in a strange mixture of fur and feathers with one remaining eye. The village judge, unable to examine the specimen after its untimely disappearance, disregards the fears of the farmer and others; chalking up the skull as nothing more than rural superstition. More pieces of furred bone are discovered over the course of the next several days and the town slowly begins to descend into a lethal mix of violence and mass hysteria. Unbeknownst to the village elders, the children have all begun to grow a patch of fur similar to those found on the remains; marking them as possessed by an evil spirit. A cult of satanic servants begins to form as more children are overtaken and secretly work to collect the remains and rebuild the demon from its scattered parts.
A coven of devil-worshiping children under the control of a demon would be the nightmare of most early modern Europeans. However, with the Enlightenment and the rise in rejection of beliefs considered to be archaic in the 18th century, such a scenario would feel far-fetched. The film’s judge encapsulates such thinking by stating at one point that “witchcraft is dead and discredited.” However, as events take a turn for the worst, villagers turn to old methods of detecting witchcraft and means of Christian protection against the invisible enemy. The film encapsulates the division of belief during this period, but also the gap between those privileged to education and those living a more rural life without access to monetarily driven advantages.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw is available for viewing in the United States through Tubi and Roku.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) dir. David Hand
The first full-length animated feature film and the first Disney animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells the story of a young woman forced to work as a maid by her jealous step-mother (and Queen). Each day the Queen asks her magic mirror “who is the fairest of them all,” and is reassured that it is she. However, when Snow White grows to surpass the Queen in beauty, the Evil Queen plots to be rid of her step-daughter by sending her away into the woods to be killed by the Queen’s Huntsman. Unable to bring himself to go through with his orders, the Huntsman lets Snow White go free in the forest, where she eventually comes upon a group of seven dwarves. When the Queen realizes Snow White is still alive, she seeks out her step-daughter, disguised as an old hag, and places her under into deathlike sleep by feeding her a poisonous apple. Trapped and defenseless, Snow White will eternally sleep unless she is revived by true love’s first kiss.
Disney brought the Brothers Grimm fairytale to the silver screen and introduced the masses to tropes that are now a part of the larger culture surrounding both witchcraft and fantasy in film and other media. The Evil Queen witch depicted in Snow White harkens back to popular conceptions tied to the historic witch, namely the venomous, shape-shifting woman with a self-serving vendetta. Historic witches and witchcraft are forever tied to religion and the Evil Queen embodies the sins of pride, envy, and wrath; a feared combination that early modern individuals believed would lead to damnation or a person down a darker path to Satanic servitude. While there is no direct historical connection to magical mirrors or poisonous fruit, the traditional witch was believed to create spells or charms to assist her nefarious tasks. This film serves as an example of how traditional, historical influence intersects between more modern creative liberties to create an iconic piece of media.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is available for viewing in the United States on Disney+.
Gretel & Hansel (2020) dir. Oz Perkins
A dark retelling of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, Gretel & Hansel remains true to the original story while adapting crucial changes that make the film stand out in its own right. No longer young twins, Gretel is reinvented as a sixteen-year-old girl charged with guarding her younger brother after their mother throws them out of their home. As the two wander across the countryside in search of food and shelter, they come across an old woman in a well-kept home filled with food that immediately entrances young Hansel. A much more suspicious Gretel, implied to possess some supernatural abilities, is eventually taken under the wing of their host who reveals herself to be a practitioner of witchcraft; eager to teach her craft to someone of a supposedly similar nature. The guise of hospitality only lasts for a short period of time, however, as the witch’s true, cannibalistic nature is finally revealed.
Director Oz Perkins is quoted as stating his hopes to “push past the image” of the witch that is now ingrained in popular culture. The old woman living in a candy house looking to lure children into her grasp is purely the invention of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale but has since taken root as a core image of the witch. Perkins shys away from this piece of popular culture and showcases a character rooted in a more traditional role. Keeping the historical image of an old woman, the witch is shown to be cannibalizing babies and young children while furthering her nefarious deeds by spreading her practice. Witches of the early modern were said to eat children of all ages and, though sometimes working alone, would often be associated as part of a larger network of individuals dabbling in the dark arts. Though a coven is not shown in the film, the implication of individuals possessing supernatural abilities that can be harnessed through training is not a newly invented idea. In total, the film expertly encapsulates the traditional witch not only through the previous statements, but by dually showcasing her for what she has always been: a flawed human being.
Gretel & Hansel is available for viewing in the United States on Amazon Prime and Paramount+.
Viy (1967) dir. Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov
The first horror film made in the Soviet Union, the plot follows the story of a group of seminary students who, after staying the night at an old woman’s farm on their travel home, become entangled with a witch. One of the students, Khoma, is approached in the night by the old woman who attempts to seduce him. After his refusal toward her advances, she places him under a spell and uses his body as a vehicle to fly through the night; leading Khoma to the conclusion that she is a witch. The moment they land and he is free from her will, he beats the old woman with a stick as she slowly transforms into a beautiful woman to garner sympathy and end the torment. Now stricken with guilt, Khoma runs back to the seminary only to find that, by chance, he has been assigned to keep vigil and pray over the same young woman whom only he knows to be truly an old witch.
Viy speaks to a deep, socially rooted fear of the other and how deviants may be hiding amongst ordinary people. The witch herself is represented as both of the depictions most historically associated with such a creature as she exists dually as the beautiful, seductive woman and the old hag who flies through the night. Additionally, there is no mention of any overtly Satanic activity in the film despite depicting witchcraft which, while potentially seeming strange, is fitting to the history of witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine. To the early modern individuals living in these areas, a pact with Satan was not a prerequisite for becoming a witch, but rather, witches could be any person who deviated from norms or were able to perform supernatural feats.
Viy is available for viewing in the United States through the video service Shudder.
Black Sunday (1960) dir. Mario Bava
During the 1960s, a rise in period-accurate costuming, trials, torture, and execution came to the forefront of American cinema as the popularity in witch-related media reached new heights. With these depictions came the interest in stories of vengeance and the witch, or witches, exacting revenge on those who oppressed and murdered them. The stressful years of McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklists undoubtedly played an integral role in the rising interest in witch-hunts and spoke to the fear of punishment for an ancestor’s sins. The inception point for this cinematic trend is undoubtedly Black Sunday; the story of an intergenerational curse and religious zeal.
Barbara Steele stars as the 17th century Moldavian sorcerer Princess Asa Vajda who, along with her lover, are sentenced to death for witchcraft. Vajda is declared a high priestess of Satan after interrogation by the Inquisition and ordered to be executed by her own brother: The Grand Inquisitor of Moldavia. Before having the spiked “mask of Satan” driven into her face and being branded with the mark of Satan, the princess curses her brother, his conspirators, and their family line; vowing to torment them for the rest of eternity. Several centuries later, Vajda is awoken from her tomb by an unsuspecting doctoral duo and free to finally take her revenge by reinventing herself in the form of her own ancestor: Kaita.
Black Sunday is available for viewing in the United States on Amazon Prime and Shudder.
The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015) dir. Robert Eggers
A mixture of both history and folklore, Robert Eggers’ debut film captures the religious fervor and hardships encapsulating the Puritan world of early New England. Set in the 1630s, a family of seven is exiled from an unnamed colony over a religious dispute that leads them to move to a secluded farm near the edge of the woods. As with the witch trials in both Salem and early modern Europe, the story unfolds in a familiar, formulaic fashion as each tragedy befalling the family adds to growing suspicion surrounding the eldest daughter. The period-accuracy from costuming to vernacular helps to create an immersive atmosphere filled with dread and superstition that mirrors that of the character’s own religiously-centric paranoia.
While the film deviates from total accuracy with the introduction of a true witch, a naked crone living in the woods often disguising herself as a beautiful woman, her actions and appearance are of themselves historically correct; the old widow flying through the night to meet the devil or the attractive, unassuming woman with the power to cause misfortune both terrorized the minds of Europeans and New England colonists. There is, of course, no proof at any point in history of individuals flying to meet the devil or possessing the power to maim or kill others through nefarious means. However, the belief in witches and the fear of their wrath prevailed in early modern society and is showcased, albeit with a more modern, supernatural twist, quite authentically through this film.
The VVitch is available for viewing in the United States through Amazon Prime and Hulu.
Witchfinder General (1968) dir. Michael Reeves
Based on Ronald Bassett’s heavily fictionalized 1966 novel of the same name, Witchfinder General follows the story of the real-life Matthew Hopkins, a notorious witch-hunter who terrorized the English countryside in the mid-1600s during the English Civil War. Hopkins claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General despite no such title ever being bestowed upon an individual by Parliament at any point in history. In total, during the entirety of his career from March 1644 to August 1647, the self-professed Witchfinder General was directly responsible for the death of hundreds of people with many more sent to the gallows through his accusations and supposed findings.
The film stars Vincent Price as the titular character, a lawyer who falsely claims to have been appointed Witchfinder General by Parliament in order to seek out and destroy any sorcerers or witches in the East Anglia region. The film centers around the murderous exploits of Hopkins as he is pursued by Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall after the witch-hunter and his assistant John Stearne victimize Marshall’s fiancée Sara and execute her priestly uncle. A tale of revenge and horror in the most picturesque landscape, director Michael Reeves creates a film about the danger lurking in the most ordinary places and how belief and superstition allow even the most inexcusable atrocities.
Regarded as an unusually sadistic film for the time period, censorship disallowed any physical media releases for many years in the United Kingdom and the United States. Witchfinder General remains banned in any format in several countries.
Witchfinder General is available for viewing in the United States through PlutoTV and YouTube.
The Devils (1971) dir. Ken Russell
In the winter of 1961, on a London stage, British film director Ken Russell first experienced the story of the Loudun Possessions through John Whiting’s play The Devils as produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Immediately inspired, Russell began to research the basis for the performance; Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudun. The detail of which Huxley constructed the story of witchcraft, demonic possession, mass hysteria, and sexual repression compelled the director to begin working on his own script to bring the little known 17th century events to the world of film.
The film co-stars Oliver Reed as the popular, womanizing Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as the repressed Sister Jeanne des Agnes who incites the accusations. Loudun, a self-governing town in France under the protection of Grandier, falls into chaos as King Louis XIII plots with Cardinals to overtake the town and end the peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants. The abbess, Sister Jeanne, believing her obsession with Grandier to be proof of possession incited by witchcraft, accuses the priest of bewitching her and the group of Ursuline nuns under her charge.
A mixture of overt theological, sexual, and political content that comes together in an overarching critique of power earned the film an X rating. Even still, Russell was forced to eliminate some of the most shocking scenes from his work before Warner Bros. would even consider a release. The unedited version closest to the director’s original vision has been screened only a handful of times, but the British Film Institute’s 2012 restoration, the only available streaming version and first released in the United States in 2017, is arguably just as impactful.
The Devils is available for viewing in the United States through video service Shudder.