The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen About Witches

The Wretched Box Office

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week, we’re getting our witch on.)

One of the many odd notes that will be attached to this period in American history is one concerning an unprecedented box-office streak. With traditional movie theaters closed for business and studios pushing back their summer releases, a small indie film managed to dominate the box office. The Wretched (2019) is a riff on Fright Night (1985) which itself was inspired by Rear Window (1954), but this time it’s a witch who moves in next door intent on causing all kinds of murderous mayhem.

The movie’s okay – it’s worth it for the practical effects alone – but its success shows in part the eternal appeal of witchy shenanigans for moviegoers. They’ve remained of interest across the past century with popular titles from Haxan (1922), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Black Sunday (1960) to Hocus Pocus (1993), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Witch (2015).

As is evident by the column’s title, though, I’m far more interested in the less popular films that are still every bit worthy of your attention. One example, the fantastically under-appreciated Beautiful Creatures (2013), would have made the cut here had I not already included it on a list of YA adaptations you haven’t seen, but happily I have six more picks equally worthy of inclusion. So keep reading for a look at the best movies you’ve never seen about witches.

The Demon (1963, Italy)

Purif is a bit of an odd one, but what do you expect when you name your child Purificata? It implies a purity that no one could live up to, and that ideal is even less possible in a small village prone to religious fervor and hypocrisy. Her behavior grows erratic after being spurned by a lover hoping to settle down with a more respectable woman, and soon she’s suspected of being a witch in league with the devil. And she may very well be.

Brunelle Rondi’s Il demonio leans heavily into the ambiguity of Purif’s behavior making either outcome possible at times. Is she marked by Satan, or is she simply mad with undiagnosed schizophrenia or some other illness? Hints abound for both, but the core truth remains in that a young woman is doomed by forces well beyond her control. The townspeople form mobs, an attempted exorcism in a church leads to a creepy as hell “spider-walk” (predating The Exorcist by a decade), and not even her family can be counted on for protection and love.

The film delivers a solidly dark drama with all elements working in unison, but it’s Daliah Lavi’s (The Whip and the Body, 1963; Casino Royale, 1967) stunningly powerful lead performance that makes the film so affecting. Comparisons to Isabelle Adjani’s frantically mesmerizing turn in Possession (1981) are understandable, but Lavi deserves to be the one to whom others are compared. Her shifts from passionate to playful to panicked and beyond are captivating and endlessly tragic.

The Demon is currently unavailable.

Mark of the Witch (1970)

A witch is hung for being “a witch,” but before her neck snaps she unleashes a curse on the men responsible for her fate – a curse that will haunt their sons, their grandsons, their great-grandsons, and so on. Three hundred years later the cool cats and groovy gals at a university decide to play around with some historical books in an attempt to raise a spirit. They don’t know it yet, but they succeed, and young Jill is possessed by the vengeful spirit hungry to unleash her deadly abilities.

“The men who killed the witch were obviously pricks, and setting the film on a college campus reveals the species hasn’t really come all that far three centuries later. On hearing that they’re hoping to summon a witch, one guy says “I get first dibs on her,” and it’s all we need to know. The film’s a bit dialogue heavy as Jill’s boyfriend and professor work around the clock to save Jill and anyone who might get in her way, but their intentions and efforts show an empathy missing from the witch’s own life.”

There’s a wonderfully mundane nature to the film as director Tom Moore and writers Mary Davis and Martha Peters see the witch’s arrival paired with a learning curve when it comes to things like geography, telephones, and coffee makers. Anitra Walsh is fantastic and clearly having a blast with her turn into the sultry witch, and it’s easy to see how the film helped inspire Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016). She’s playful, confident, sexy, and determined to wreak the intended havoc both on and off campus. “I haven’t murdered anybody,” she says with a smile, “I can’t help it if your 20th century people are so fragile.” It’s a casually trippy watch for the interested among you.

Mark of the Witch is available to stream.

Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

Simon Sinestrari lives in the sewer, but like, by choice, man. He’s a witch with plans on becoming a god, and the 70s are the ideal decade for exploring the universe through drugs, sex, and pure magic. One day he’s placing a deadly curse on a man who ripped him off, the next he’s disrupting a flesh-filled occult ritual hosted by a bored housewife, and through it all he’s planning the perfect ritual to elevate him beyond the mortal plane.

Most people probably believe that the term witch refers only to females, as evidenced by the vast majority of movies, but it’s actually a non-gendered moniker. Yes, I know Bewitched and that Julian Sands film I can’t recall the name of referred to magical guys as warlocks, but they’re all witches. Simon even comments as such here, and his effort fits the laid back nature of it all as the film evokes any number of 70s counter-culture flicks about people dropping out of society for a better life. This one just happens to be about a dropout who’s content making a few bucks selling trinkets before seeking supernatural revenge.

Andrew Prine (Grizzly, 1976; They’re Playing with Fire, 1984) is one of those terrific actors whose face you immediately recognize, but his nearly two hundred credits are mostly supporting turns with this being a rare lead role. He’s a charismatic performer, and his lackadaisical playfulness helps lend the film a comedic sense that may not seem apparent from the story synopsis. Serious things happen, from deaths to some hopelessly outdated dialogue, but the general vibe here is far from the “horror” it’s labeled as. The film instead is a hybrid of 70s weirdness and some kind of thriller making for a rather unique watch.

Simon, King of the Witches is available to stream.

La tía Alejandra (1978, Mexico)

Aunt Alejandra comes to live with her extended family, but as relatively well-meaning as she is, Alejandra can’t quite fit in with them. The couple is interested in her estate, the kids mostly want to make fun of her, and no one knows quite what to make of her daily rituals and secretive spells. They’ll all find out soon enough, though.

This Mexican tale feels at times like a fable, and in lesser – i.e. more corporate hands – it could easily have become a family-oriented film about kids having a fun adventure with their magical old aunt, but happily that’s not at all what we get. To be clear, it’s still fun, but the entertainment here is of the morbid variety as the family pushes Alejandra a bit too far at their own peril. What I’m saying is, some kids bite it.

The film is rarely graphic outside of some brief full frontal nudity and a long pummeling with a roller skate, but the encroaching horror is present all the same in the old woman’s behaviors, glances, and puppet shows. Deaths appear accidental or mysterious to the outside world, but the family members see too clear a line between Alejandra being wronged in some way and someone paying a deadly price. As mentioned, it feels at times like a fable centered on a lesson about kindness and compassion, and that’s something the world can always use more of. And if some bratty kids have to die? Well, the Grimm Brothers would be pleased.

La tía Alejandra is not currently available.

Spellbinder (1988)

Jeff Mills is a successful lawyer in Los Angeles who learns too late that no good deed goes unpunished after rescuing a young woman named Miranda from an abusive man. He falls for her fast, but soon the man she left behind, along with dozens of other cult members, come looking to take her back. It’s a race against time and the devil’s entourage as the two lovebirds try to stay ahead and stay alive.

Guilty pleasures aren’t a real thing – like what you like! – but I imagine some folks out there have claimed just that of this late 80s genre mashup. It’s part romantic comedy/drama, part supernatural thriller, and all harmless entertainment delivering banter, saucy adult shenanigans, and plenty of dark thrills involving satanists. People are burned alive, symbols are carved into flesh, cars are levitated, One very creepy yet cool sequence sees numerous cult members crowding the windows outside using their powers to bend the glass and window frames inward until they all shatter. It’s good stuff!

Both the director (Janet Greek; The Ladies Club, 1986) and writer (Tracy Tormé; Fire in the Sky, 1993) are women, still too much of a rarity for the genre, and both went on to find more success working in television. Their collaboration here ends on a note that’s grimmer than expected for studio fare even if it’s also more than a little similar to an earlier, more popular title. Tim Daly and Kelly Preston headline in front of the camera, and like the rest of the cast, they’re playing things with conviction selling the relationship as well as they do the witchy action.

Spellbinder is available on Blu-ray/DVD and to stream.

The Mask of Satan (1989)

A group of friends enjoying a leisurely skiing trip accidentally fall into a recently opened crevasse and find themselves trapped in an ice cave. Their boredom ends when they discover a fancy mask in the ice which they immediately pry from the frozen face beneath. Big mistake. Huge. They’ve just freed the cursed witch’s spirit, and soon they’re under attack by evil incarnate intent on seducing, killing, and maybe eating their innards.

Lamberto Bava’s late 80s made for Italian television feature is seen by some as a slight remake of his father Mario’s classic Black Sunday (1960), and its lineage is confused further by it being released in some markets as Demons 5, but it’s also loosely inspired by Nikolay Gogol’s 1835 novella “Viy.” The film is no classic in its own right, necessarily, but Bava the younger gets a lot of mileage out of the simple tale and low budget thanks to some anarchic energy, creative visuals, and some truly nightmarish sequences.

The cave eventually gives way to a frozen village lost to time complete with a blind priest guarding over it all, and while the entirety consists of sound stages the production design goes a long way toward creating and building a horrific atmosphere of tunnels, dungeons, altars, and more. Some of the friends, all attractive young people, are possessed and descend into carnal, animalistic behavior that gets suitably naughty, and by the time the saucy seductress transforms into a sinewy crone mid-coitus you’re either fully on board or clearly trapped in a hell of your own.

The Mask of Satan is not currently available.

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