It’s never a good sign when you head back to your hometown and all your old school friends sidle up to you and want to get you alone to give you an elevator pitch about this new thing they’ve gotten into.
Nine times out of ten it’s an MLM selling makeup or essential oils or nutritional supplements.
Sometimes it’s a cult.
In Kate Whitbread’s new film, the townful of anemic-looking women sporting clothing made of natural fibers in a neutral color palette and the dark undereye circles of recent motherhood are selling witchcraft.
Claire Nash (Cassandra Magrath from Wolf Creek) is back in town to uncover the circumstances of her dad’s recent sudden death and that of her mother years before. Were their deaths a consequence of mental illness and substance abuse? Or was it really the demon that haunts the forest? And are they really even dead? Why are all these townswomen carrying around bleached bones and acting like they are infants? And why are they all interested in Claire?
Magrath works hard to bring her character to life, but the script isn’t doing her any favors. The movie is full of evocative settings and creepy imagery, but there’s not much time spent in character development and no real sense of the stakes. Plot elements are introduced and then dropped. Characters that appear to be important basically wander off and an antagonist…doesn’t seem to actually do anything.
So, when the climax comes, it feels hollow and meaningless–very much an “is that it?” kind of moment.
The Witches of Blackwood is not a good movie and it’s not quite bad enough to be fun.
Making a remarkably assured feature debut as director, Lukas Feigelfeld mesmerizes with his German Gothic poetry, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse.
Settled somewhere in the 15th Century Alps, the film shadows lonely, ostracized women struggling against a period where plague, paranoia and superstition reigned.
Young Albrun (Celina Peter) and her mother (Claudia Martini) make their way back to their isolated cabin before darkness falls. With a minimum of dialog and a maximum of atmosphere, Feigelfeld quickly establishes the dangerous isolation facing mother and daughter.
It’s an episode that will haunt Albrun well into adulthood, where she (Aleksandra Cwen) is now the single mother, still an outsider, still isolated from the village.
It would be easy to mistake the story Feigelfeld (who also writes) develops as a take on horror’s common “is she crazy or is there malevolence afoot?” theme. But the filmmaker’s hallucinatory tone and Cwen’s grounded performance allow Hagazussa to straddle that line and perhaps introduce a third option—maybe both are true.
Isolation, shunning and bullying lead to one tragedy upon the next. The village and its priest having deemed Albrun a witch, the line that defines the reality of the situation and the spiritual ugliness blur for both Albrun and the audience.
The film lends itself to a reading more lyrical than literal. Feigelfeld’s influences from Murnau to Lynch show themselves in his deliberate pacing and the sheer beauty of his delusional segments. One goat milking episode, in particular, is both startlingly erotic and disturbingly articulate of Albrun’s state of mind.
MMD’s ominous score strengthens the film’s overall sense of hypnotic menace, echoing sounds we’re not sure will frighten or comfort this mysterious woman at the center of the film.
Albrun’s is a tragic story and Feigelfeld crafts it with a believable loneliness that bends toward madness. He’s captured this moment in time, this draining and ugly paranoia that caused women such misery, with imagery that is perplexingly beautiful.
We’re afraid of the woods. We likely always have been—the Brothers Grimm may have collected wooded tales of witches, elves and wolves both big and bad during the 1800s, but those stories had been passed down for generations.
Those who told the old fairy tales saw the forest as a mysterious place of wonder, temptation, confusion and danger.
Writing/directing team George Popov and Jonathan Russell follow that same bumpy trail into the woods with their first feature, Hex.
Made on little more than a thousand dollars, Hex proves the duo to be a competent set of craftsmen and effective storytellers.
Two soldiers separated from their companies in the 17th century during England’s Civil War chase each other into a deep forest. The rebel Thomas (William Young) is young, soft and open to the dark poetry and doom of witchcraft. He’s not long in the woods before he sees his true enemy is not the countryman behind him with his sword drawn.
Richard (Daniel Oldroyd) fights for King and Country, strident and single-minded, logic keeps him from believing until he has little choice.
Hex draws quick comparisons to Ben Wheatley’s 2013 experiment A Field in England, but where that film felt fanciful and indulgent (though entertaining), Hex feels a bit more like a stage play taken to the woods.
The film is slow-moving, sometimes frustratingly so. Though Popov and Russell’s technical skills are solid, their instincts for pacing and tension-building are less honed. The slight plot relies immensely on an atmosphere of supernatural dread for its success, but it’s here that the filmmakers have some trouble.
The flaw is hardly insurmountable. Even with sometimes obvious budget restrictions, the film looks good. Popov and Russell let light from a campfire spark the imagination, edging frames with shadowy dangers.
Hex sounds great, too, working the nerves with the effective noise of blades unsheathed or the diabolical tinker of a nearby brook, all enriched with Nino Russell’s appropriately bewitching score.
There is more happening here than you realize, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that you only recognize the film’s purpose when they are ready for you to do so. The result is a satisfying tale with more power than just magic.
Can’t imagine what it was that inspired us to run through the best witch movies. Oh wait, it was the spellbinding and unsettling The Witch, that’s what it was. So, celebrate that film and many a Black Mass with us as we count down the best films about witches, and invite Junior Emmy-Winning Corresponding Mike McGraner to hash out the pros and cons of The Witch. Listen to the full brawl…er…podcast HERE.
5. Starry Eyes (2014)
Sarah (Alex Essoe) is an aspiring actress in LA and a bit of a delicate flower. She lives in a complex full of other aspiring actors, but she doesn’t hang out with them or participate in their low budget indie circle – they believe she thinks she’s too good for them. Then she auditions for a part, does some things on camera for the audition she regrets, behaves weirdly in the bathroom, and is invited to meet The Producer.
On the one hand, Starry Eyes offers an obvious plot about selling your soul for success, dressed in a cautionary tale about Hollywood. But the writing/directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer are much more sly than that. Yes, the insights they provide about the backbiting lowest rungs of the Hollywood ladder abound, but they are far more compassionate than what you routinely see.
Also fascinating is the clever use of the protagonist Sarah – she begins as our empathetic heroine, our vehicle through the daily degradation of trying to “make it.” But the filmmakers have more in store for her than this, and Essoe uncomfortably peels layer after layer of a character that is never fully what we expect.
Look for outstanding, witchy appearances by genre veteran Maria Olsen, as well as a spot-on Louis Dezseran. They will make you uncomfortable.
4. Suspiria (1977)
Italian director Dario Argenta is in the business of colorfully dispatching nubile young women. In Suspiria, his strongest film, American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) moves to Germany to join a dance academy, but the other dancers are catty and the school staff are freaks. Plus, women keep disappearing and dying.
As Suzy undertakes an investigation of sorts, she discovers that the school is a front for a coven of witches. But Argenta’s best film isn’t known for its plot, it’s become famous because of the visually disturbing and weirdly gorgeous imagery. Suspiria is a twisted fairy tale of sorts, saturating every image with detail and deep colors, oversized arches and doorways that dwarf the actors. Even the bizarre dubbing Argento favored in his earlier films works beautifully to feed the film’s effectively surreal quality.
It’s a gorgeous nightmare, bloody and grotesque but disturbingly appealing both visually and aurally (thanks to Argento’s go-to soundtrack collaborator, Goblin).
3. The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl can spin the most wondrously dark tales for children, and the tale that fits that description best is The Witches. Directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man who Fell to Earth, Performance) from a screenplay adapted by Allan Scott, the film may pull a punch here or there, but it lands others unexpectedly.
Angelica Huston – always an imposing presence – leads a cast of witches whose dastardly plan to eliminate all the children in England is overheard by, well, a child in England. Now he has to save the world, even though they’ve turned him into a mouse.
While this is absolutely a family film, full of Honey I Shrunk the Kids style fun with the tiny mouse protagonist, plus a lot of slapstick humor, Huston is forever frightening, and the film takes an absolutely terrifying turn once all those witches remove their day-to-day faces.
No, The Witches may not be a true horror flick, but it was a terrifying experience for countless kids in 1990 and it definitely boasts some of the scariest witches in cinema.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Nearly 50 years after its release, this film remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Yes, that crazy pederast Roman Polanski sure can spin a yarn about violated, vulnerable females.
Back in ’69, Roman was interested in Rosemary Woodhouse, she of the fuzzy slippers who doesn’t want to be a bother. Tethered to aspiring actor/bad husband Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary moves into a Manhattan apartment building with a dark past and some peculiar neighbors.
Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Polanski takes all the glamour out of Satanism – with a huge assist from Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her turn as the highly rouged busybody Minnie Castevet.
By now we all know what happens to poor Rosemary, but when the film was released, thanks much to Mia Farrow’s vulnerable performance, the film boiled over with paranoid tension. Was Rosemary losing it, or was she utterly helpless and in evil hands? Not that Roman Polanski, of all people, can be trusted in such a situation.
1. The Witch (2015)
The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.
Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism and radicalization roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.
As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.
Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.
Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.
As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.