June 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the first British publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as it’s known in Britain).
For those of us who grew up with it, Harry Potter may be the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “witchcraft,” but the bespectacled boy wizard was hardly the first sorcerer in our popular culture. Witches and wizards have long played a starring role on the movie screen. Let’s take the occasion of this anniversary to look back at six of the best cinematic stories of witchcraft -- streaming online -- from across the world and through the ages.
Title: Carrie (USA, 1976)
What it is: Let’s start off with an American classic: Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tale of bullying, witchcraft, and buckets of blood. Starring Sissy Spacek in her signature role, Carrie follows a persecuted high school girl as she is harassed by bullies, abused by her mother, and begins menstruating (a topic of perennial interest to Stephen King).
Adolescence is a terrible experience for many people, but what distinguishes Carrie from her awful classmates is the latent telekinetic power she keeps in reserve; let’s just hope her tormenters don’t push her over the edge (or, as the poster for the film says, “If only they knew she had the power”).
Of course, they will. Carrie has such wide cultural currency that virtually all of us know how it ends, even if we haven’t seen it. But we should see it! It still packs a punch, even if you know exactly how it’s going to unfold. Also, it is not to be confused with the garbage remake from 2013.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Denmark/Sweden, 1922)
What it is: This genre-defying oddity -- part documentary, part essay, part exploitation film -- is a history of the Inquisition’s persecution of “witches” and the mania and paranoia surrounding it. It is ostensibly an educational film, advancing the argument that most European “witches” were misunderstood victims of mental illness. I say “ostensibly” because despite this respectable aim, the main focus of the film is on graphic re-enactments of the medieval vision of Hell, and witches’ Sabbaths, and black masses, and all that good stuff.
It’s an alternately shocking and hypnotic film that will change how you think of what silent movies have to offer. Its weirdness was also doubled in 1968 when William S. Burroughs and his friends released what is essentially a “remix” of the original film, re-edited, with a jazz score, and with inimitable narration from Burroughs himself.
Where it’s streaming: Filmstruck, Amazon.
Title: War Witch (Canada, 2012)
What it is: This French-language Canadian production is set in an unnamed African country (which is clearly the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and follows the adventures of a young girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza), who is kidnapped by a rebel group and forced to become a child soldier.
The leader of the rebels becomes convinced that Komona is a witch after she experiences hallucinations that enable her to survive a battle. For him, this makes her quite useful, but it raises the issue of the persecution of suspected witches in sub-Saharan Africa, something that Rachel Mwanza experienced firsthand. Prior to her casting in this film (she had never acted before), the Congolese Mwanza had been accused of being a witch by a local “prophet” and was subjected to repeated exorcisms to purify her. Some viewers (like myself, for instance) may feel uncomfortable with Canadians making a movie dealing with stereotypical African subject matter (witches! child soldiers!) but it’s nonetheless a very compelling movie, anchored in Mwanza’s revelatory performance.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: The Witch (USA, 2015)
What it is: Set in a vividly realized early colonial America, The Witch follows a devoutly religious settler family as they attempt to make a home in the wilderness after being expelled from their religious community. At the heart of the film is the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin, whose nascent sexuality scares the shit out of them even, if they can’t articulate why, and makes her a convenient object of blame once things start to go very wrong for them.
And what doesn’t go wrong for them? Stolen babies, allegations of witchcraft, goats, and creepy twins -- the whole gamut of satanic nightmares is on display in this profoundly unsettling film. What’s especially satisfying about The Witch is its refusal to compromise with the usual cop-outs (you know like, “It turns out the real horror… was religious fanaticism”). No, the film makes very clear, very early on, that the supernatural evil is real, although the deadly mix of superstition and misogyny that the family brings to bear on it certainly doesn’t help matters.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Day of Wrath (Denmark, 1943)
What it is: The second Danish entry on our list (witchcraft really resonates with the Danes, apparently), Day of Wrath is master director Carl Th. Dreyer’s harrowing depiction of the inquisition’s attempts to destroy an elderly woman accused of witchcraft in early 17th century Denmark, and the subsequent persecution of her daughter.
It is also an allegory for the situation of Denmark under the Nazi occupation, which was ongoing when the film was made, and which the Nazi censors apparently didn’t pick up on, because they didn’t have a problem with it. Interestingly, after its debut in Copenhagen in 1943, Dreyer left the country, ostensibly so that he could promote the film in foreign markets, and he spent the rest of the war in the comparative safety of neutral Sweden. Day of Wrath was Dreyer’s first sound film, and he would make only two more, Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). Along with Day of Wrath, these films are widely seen as masterpieces.
Where it’s streaming: Filmstruck.
Title: The Wailing (South Korea, 2016)
What it is: Horror movies rarely reach what we might think of as epic lengths, but The Wailing makes wonderful use of all 156 minutes of its running time. In a small village in modern South Korea, strange and sinister events are unfolding: mysterious arsons, parricides, people acting like zombies. And it falls to local cop Jong-goo to investigate.
Now, in every South Korean movie that I have ever seen, the cops are depicted as corrupt, violent, incompetent, or some combination thereof, and The Wailing is no exception. Jong-goo must summon his limited intellectual resources to sort out who among the town’s growing population of shamans and sorcerers is responsible for the community’s supernatural afflictions as they threaten to spread to his own house.
Blending elements of a number of horror subgenres, relentless in its batshit insanity, and never dull, The Wailing is one of the most engrossing horror films in recent memory and a fitting conclusion to our look at cinematic witchcraft, which has taken us a long way from Hogwarts.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, YouTube.