The Best Witch Movies to Watch this Halloween:
“Double, Double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good”
These lines from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth have fired up the imaginations of millions across centuries about the art of witchcraft. They are laced with a throbbing sense of evil, hinting at the myriad possibilities that would open up if one could just chance upon a big, fat book of spells and a sisterhood to swear by. One could, after all, call oneself a witch.
The word ‘Witch,’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originates in the Old English words ‘Wicca’ and ‘Wicce,’ which in turn originated from the verb ‘Wiccan.’ It referred to the one who could perform sorcery. To understand how witches came to be painted in shades of all kinds of evil and Satanic practices, one must go back in time to understand how centuries-long popular religious practices, particularly Christianity, came to associate any deviation from the traditionally laid-down heteronormative role for women as a characteristic of witches.
This means if one were to come out as queer or defy the Church’s order to marry a chosen partner, they would be branded as a witch. With time, literature has sought to rewrite the image of a wicked witch with some benchmarks of goodness. Think about the co-existence and the stark difference between the Wicked Witches of the East and the West against the Good Witches of the North and the South in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). In this process, witches have become a genre-defying social construct in popular culture.
If you, too, have been fascinated by the idea of a witch and wish to understand more about their representation in cinematic imagination this Halloween, here’s a curated list of the ten best witch films. These films span across genres – coming-of-age to eccentric sexual dramas – and carefully highlight the one distinguishing factor that makes for a unique portrayal of the witch in each of them. The films have been chronologically ranked to avoid any bias. Happy Reading!
1. I Married a Witch (1942)
The portrayal of witches has found its best cinematic fit in the genres of horror and gore. However, a good witch love story or romantic comedy promises to bring together the best of both worlds – romance, and witchcraft – to make it a rare but exquisite subgenre to explore. These films delve into the cheesy aspects of supernatural romance between a human being and a witch, peppered with witty dialogues and on-screen displays of the practice of witchcraft, but mostly leave us with contended sighs and happy endings. One of the more endearing films in this subgenre is Rene Clair’s screwball comedy, I Married a Witch, which is based on the novel The Passionate Witch (1941) by Thorne Smith.
It features the story of Jennifer (played by Veronica Lake), who was burned as a witch at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. Her spirit has come back to the human world centuries later to haunt her descendant, Wallace Wooley (played by Fredric March). Only if she knew that the effects of love are stronger than witchcraft!
Jessica doesn’t shy away from brewing potions or flirting with Wallace, therefore bringing together her witchcraft and femininity to model a female character that can accommodate a balance of the human and the supernatural. It helps nullify our traditional notions of witches as bloodthirsty, old, and ugly beings. This is a romantic comedy with a witchy twist that is an alluring cult classic to fall upon.
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2. Black Sunday (1960)
The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts are one of the most glaring examples of the historical wrong done against women by society. Embarrassingly so, every Western culture has a history of such trials. The idea of the vengeful witch who has been wronged by sociocultural practices has become one of the most common fodders for a narrative with a witch. The idea dates back in time to Roland af Hällström’s Finnish film, The Witch (1952). One of the more popular examples of the same is Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, which uses the same idea to build on a story of Judeo-Christian belief, drawing inspiration from Gogol’s novella, The Viy.
The film inaugurates in the 1960s with the portrayal of a witch trial. The Moldavian princess, Asa Vajda, and her lover, Javutich, are held captive for practicing sorcery. They are being tortured by Griabi, her brother, before being burnt at the stake. Asa puts a curse on her brother’s descendants, vowing to return for vengeance. The film jumps forward by 200 years when Asa’s tomb is discovered by a duo of traveling doctors, and a drop of blood trickles onto the dead witch’s skin. It features Barbara Steele in a dual role and her first horror feature. She is the embodiment of good and evil at the same time, making her body the ideal Christian.
The horror is atmospheric and chilling, especially in how Bava frames the witch in every scene. The narrative traces her act of coming to life meticulously, almost hinging upon the chauvinistic fears and beliefs of vengeful witches. They, after all, represent the marginalized who had been wronged. Additionally, the vampire myth runs as a subverted subplot in the film. As far as witch movies are concerned, Bava’s first film, Black Sunday, went on to lay the foundation for the Gothic-horror genre in Italian cinema.
3. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Adolescents are typically outcasts who must walk a careful line between childhood and adulthood while exploring the new-found powers of their sexuality. Much like how we have come to understand witches – historically wronged, misunderstood, and ousted from society. Bringing them together – adolescents and witches – is a prolific subgenre of teenage witch movies that carefully stir the element of magic into human adolescence to bring forth an epiphany. Kiki’s Home Delivery by Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most beautiful Ghibli films that tell the tale of a young witch’s coming of age.
Kiki is a young witch who has recently moved out of home with a broomstick and a talking cat, Jiji. She decides to earn a livelihood by running a delivery service called the Witch Delivery Service, using her flying skills. The story follows her adventures as she grapples with the new-found responsibilities of her workplace and must make peace with a few factors before finding a purpose in life.
Miyazaki’s careful attention to detail toward feminine sensibilities is a standout in all Studio Ghibli movies. Through the character of Kiki, he attempts to understand the vulnerabilities of independent living among Japanese adolescent girls. Kiki is balancing the traditional idea of being a modern witch who wears an all-black outfit and adorns her hair with a red bow. But most importantly, she is a teenager riddled with self-doubt and struggling to find acceptance. Kiki is a finely crafted teenage witch character in the Ghibli cinematic universe.
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4. Hocus Pocus (1993)
From the little we have learned about witches, what would they be without their coven? Witch movies featuring strong interpersonal friendships between witches make for the best movie-watching experience on Halloween nights or sleepovers. One of the most iconic films in that category is Hocus Pocus, directed by Kenny Ortega, a film that flunked at the box office during its initial release but has acquired the status of a cult classic over the years.
The Sanderson Sisters – Sarah (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), Winifred (played by Bette Midler), and Mary (played by Kathy Najimy) – are a trio of infamous witches who are hanged for their misdeeds in 1693. They promise to return on Halloween night when there’s a full moon in the sky and a virgin lights a Black Flame candle in their sacred spot. Three centuries later, a young boy named Max (played by Omri Katz) has freed the witches. The story follows the misadventures of these witches through the course of this unfateful night.
The Sanderson sisters are campy in their appearance – loud make-up, low-cut corsets, flowing capes, over-the-top hairdos, etc. This has turned them into modern-day queer witch icons. The sweeping drama of their attires is complemented by the fantastical bent in the characters of each of the witches. These witches are not grounded in the gritty realism of horror; instead, they are villains delighting in musical performances and human folly. The narrative logic is as haywire as the three witches, making this a spectacle worth enjoying. What’s best? You can enjoy the Sanderson Sisters in the film’s sequel, Hocus Pocus 2 (2022), which features two witch covens instead of one.
5. Makdee (2002)
Witches are the freshest symbol of feminist horror in Indian cinema. Through them, filmmakers are trying to raise awareness about the grave crimes collectively meted out to women by patriarchal society. The idea is to voice the injustices done towards them and drive home the idea that behind every witch is the story of a woman misunderstood. Laying the groundwork for this, albeit with a comical bent, back in the 2000s was Vishal Bharadwaj’s scary directorial debut, Makdee.
This film is about Chunni and Munni, a pair of identical twins, and their encounter with an old mad witch who lives in a spooky old house outside the town. It is believed that the witch could turn human beings into animals. The narrative plunges headlong into the annals of this house with Chunni as we set out to discover Munni and the secrets of this wicked witch.
Shabana Azmi plays the on-screen witch, looking like one of the children’s nightmares come to life. The peculiarity of her hag-like appearance contributes to the spectacle of this film. Although the antagonist in this film, this witch abounds in human vices, such as greed. It is a children’s film that educated the kids growing up in the 2000s about the blurry line between the human and the supernatural.
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6. Maleficent (2014)
Fairy tales are infamous for portraying witches as forces of evil and the root of all villainy. The witches are ogress in these stories, living on the outskirts of the towns and inside deep forests and carrying around a penchant for revenge. Following these lines and the Grimm Brothers’ Little Biar Rose, Charles Perrault penned the character of an evil fairy godmother, also known as Carabosse, in his tale of Sleeping Beauty. Walt Disney went on to call her Maleficent in their animated adaptation of Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Thanks to director Robert Stomberg and producer Joe Roth, Maleficient was made the protagonist of her own story in the 2014 Disney film Maleficent.
Starring the fantastic Angelina Jolie as the titular character, Maleficent is the queen and protector of the Moors, a mystic realm for the supernaturals just beyond the human kingdom. She has been deeply wounded by the human world and curses the new princess of the kingdom to death-like slumber at the age of 16. But Aurora, the princess (played by Elle Fanning), develops a mother-child bond with Maleficent, who must do everything she can to undo the curse from affecting the one she loves most.
Maleficent is the protagonist of the story and a Folkloric witch character with a disdain for human beings. Moreover, she is fiercely caring towards Aurora, has a set of strong morals, and uses her witch powers only to save Aurora and her kingdom from evil. In her iconic all-black attire, sporting a gorgeous pair of black wings and a raven by her side, Maleficent is a proverbial witch with a heart of gold.
7. The VVitch (2015)
The identity of a witch is socio-culturally concocted by the dual factors of religion and folklore. Anyone who rebelled or chose to speak out against the order of the church or the idiocratic government of the time was branded as a witch. If we trace these factors carefully back in time, we may be able to conjure an origin story of a witch from a particular period in history. Robert Egger’s The Witch is a fine example of the same. It rewinds in time by 400 years to paint a backdrop of New England in the 1600s, filling the narrative with a careful study of witches and witchcraft to make one of the finest witch movies from the last decade.
The film follows the story of William, his wife, and his family of five children, who have recently moved into a farm near a secluded forest after being banished from a Puritan colony. The youngest, Samuel, disappears, the twins start to converse with an old goat in their stable, and Caleb falls mysteriously ill and dies. The blame for it all falls upon Thomasin (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter of the family, who they believe to be a potential witch. The film then poignantly descends into a saga of horror to establish and debunk their beliefs.
The Witch is, in a twisted way, the story of Thomasin’s coming of age. She comes to understand womanhood just as well as the real witch inside the forest knows the ways of evil. This maturation is itself an expression of sin. Hence, every woman hitting puberty and coming to terms with her own body and sexuality is a witch. Eggers’ film blurs the boundary between folklore and a real incident, and everyday and the supernatural, thereby making it paranoia-inducing. It is just enough spooky and intriguing to watch as a part of your witch movies ritual this Halloween season.
8. The Love Witch (2016)
Patriarchal ways of thinking mixed with a dogmatic fear of the powerful, independent woman have given rise to decades of storytelling in which the woman is gazed at, lusted for, coerced, manipulated, and rescued by the man. They are constantly associated with a villainous abuse of their power and beauty. What are these women, if not modern-day witches, trying to ensnare the men in worldly charms so that they can have things their own way? Anna Biller mixes a phantasmagoric cocktail of gender politics and mythical horror using technicolor cinematography in the film The Love Witch. It seeks to address this inherent patriarchal fear.
The protagonist, Elaine Parks, played by Samantha Robinson, is a young widow and a witch. She settles in a lavish Victorian home in Arcata, California, and engages in hedonist affairs with multiple men, killing them through satanic rituals. Although driven by the quest for love and devotion, Elaine can only find emotional immaturity and lust in all her associations. This is an ode to pulpy paperbacks and the icon of the femme fatale from the 60s.
The film endlessly questions our culture’s conception of gender roles and female sexuality. Further, it is replete with the Female Gaze and serves both as a criticism of the audience’s intruding gaze into Elaine’s life and practices and their horror about women who aren’t ashamed of naming their desires and speaking their minds. Elaine’s devotion to witchcraft is not an anomaly but a part of her belief system and lifestyle choices. The Love Witch is part of the canon of modern-day feminist reclamation in cinema that makes a conscious effort to redress their female characters by voicing them with nuance.
9. Suspiria (2018)
Some films choose to drag us along with the protagonist into the witches’ den. These witches prey on innocents to achieve immortality or out of sheer fetish for human blood. Witches are the pure source of evil in cultic horror films. One of the finest examples of the same is Suspiria (2018) by Luca Guadagnino, a grandiose remake of Dario Argento’s first film in the Three Mothers trilogy, Suspiria (1977).
The film begins in the same year as the original – 1977. Susie (played by Dakota Johnson) attains enrollment in a famous dance academy in West Berlin. She brings with herself an easy innocence and strength, quickly landing her the role of the protagonist in the performance of the “Volk.” But there’s more to this sinister performance. The building harbors a secret witchy coven of Mothers, ready to ensnare each of the dancers into a web of evil, one performance at a time. Set against the backdrop of post-World War II Germany, Guadagnino’s Suspiria digresses from the outlandishly red color palette of Argento’s Suspiria, keeping it mostly muted but committed to portraying a devouring Satanic doom upon the dancers.
There’s something bewitching about the choreography of every performance in this film, complemented by the grooving musical score. It is a stylistic rendition of Argento’s Suspiria. It doesn’t force you to cackle in a wicked feverish glee but leaves you in a hypnotic spell of the witches, making it one of the best witch movies out there.
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10. You Won’t Be Alone (2022)
Rare are films that offer us an in-depth insight into the emotional states of witches without giving them a predominant shade of virtue or vice. They form an example of subversive storytelling in which the traditionally supernatural character of witches is crafted like human beings. Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, You Won’t Be Alone is the latest example of an unconventional but beautiful approach to the growth and development of a shape-shifting young witch.
Nevena loses her voice to Maria’s effect and is forced to grow up in an isolated cave for sixteen years. She is led into the wilderness by Maria, who takes the form of her mother and must fend for herself as she navigates the various stages and sexualities of human existence. She is continually in a state of becoming throughout the film, which becomes a bitter-sweet exploration of human existence.
The shape-shifting aspects of Nevena ideally contribute to the genre of body horror, but instead of making the audience feel grossed out, it generates a sense of empathy among them. It further highlights a dysfunctional mother-daughter tension between Nevena and Maria that is ironically human. Every day for them is an act of struggle for survival, an act for which they pay handsomely. There is a latent commentary on the queerness of witches because of their gender fluidity as well. Maria, the only antagonist against Nevena, has an origin story that is integrated into the narrative as a folklore of Serbian-Macedonian origins. This film is moving, earthy, and distinctive in its approach toward witches and witchcraft.