Cinema and Witchcraft: A Selection of Great Films
Witchcraft in cinema is almost a leitmotif that connects with the dark side of the moon, with what is unknown to us about femininity.
The historical relationship between cinema and witchcraft has produced some brilliant results. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the nature of both “disciplines” corresponds to exercising elements such as the narrative construction of illusions that can latently broach reality and remain there.
The Medieval Era
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) explores the scientific knowledge of techniques employed by witches. Specialists have fought with its classification, but it is considered an expressionist gem. It compares the behavior of medieval witches with that of some women from the early 20th century, using the recent contributions of Freud and finding a justification for witchcraft in hysteria.
The Juniper Tree (Nietzchka Keene, 1990) features a very young Björk. After her mother is burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft, two sisters have to escape with the ancestral knowledge that makes them powerful, so that one of them ends up overpowering another man with the dark arts that she masters, and in such a way that takes over his willpower. This theme of the power of a witch over a man recurs in literature and has been taken up in cinema in diverse ways. In this film there is a good witch and an evil one, as in the original archetype of the two magic sisters.
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) is a kind of road movie treatment of the 15th century Russian painter, in an odyssey through varied landscapes. Although the plot is not based on witchcraft, it is worthy of inclusion here because it contains one of the most believable scenes of a witches’ Sabbath in the middle of a forest, all seen through the eyes of a holy man. An expression of naked bodies, revealing their libertine spirit amid a cruel and selfish system that does not have room for the individual.
The African religion that was taken to the US by slaves features a series of rituals that have worked in a photogenic way in varied cinematographic sequences, with candlelit scenes, mystical costumes and animal sacrifices. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) takes place on a Caribbean island where the black threat toward white heroines is channeled through witchcraft with the possibility of them being possessed by an “inferior” race, by savages. The Believers (John Schlesinger, 1987) is a movie about cops in which voodoo rituals play alongside mysterious crimes, in which black magic, and its dominions, prevent cases from being solved. Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987) goes even further in the supernatural film noir genre and portrays New Orleans as the door to the black hell. Many at the time criticized The Serpent and the Rainbow (Wes Craven, 1988), above all for its irregular mixture of genres, but the creator of Freddy Krueger achieves a visual portrayal of voodoo visions full of zombies as they appear between reality and fantasy and, as is this director’s hallmark, in the third reality that is cinema.
Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981) tells the legend of King Arthur in an eloquent manner, full of narrative grace and with an overflowing visual imagination that have turned the film into a classic and a cult one at the same time. In the domain of sophisticated animation, the African focus of Kirikou and the Sorceress (Michel Ocelot, 1998) is worthy of note, and which, despite being an animation, provokes intense sensations. In African cinema, which gets limited exposure, magic is dealt with as a day-to-day component, and we can appreciate this in multiple examples of the so-called Nigerian Nollywood. For example, in Xala (Ousmane Sembène, 1975), a classic of Senegalese cinema, magic serves as a path to comedy, when a man suffering from sexual impotence on his wedding night suspects the magic of his previous wives.
In Hollywood, magic as an excuse also serves as a criticism of the economic system: Sam Raimi detoxes himself from the multiple Spider-Man movies he directed to bring us the succulent Drag Me to Hell (2009). Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has a spell placed on her by a gypsy after she is unable to help her with her mortgage while working in a bank. And for Ingmar Bergman magic would be, as was to be expected, a psychological phenomenon. In The Magician (1958), illusion or pretending that one is a magician formed the supreme technique to control other people and to force their will upon them.
The excellent British director Nicolas Roeg, who found fame by shooting David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), would make Angelica Huston a faithful incarnation of those women adept at black magic in The Witches (1990).
The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, 1999) changed the panorama of horror movies by using video and narrating the story in the first person. They used the false documentary format, witnessing a live threat of an ancient witch that lives in the forest. Two decades earlier, Alarido (Dario Argento, 1977), in the form of Giallo, gave full force to the witch as a threat. And what happens in The Woods (Lucky McKee, 2006) is very similar, in which an encounter between a virginal young girl and the leader of the witches that controls the forest is narrated, and in which the darkness contrasts with the light and with the cinematographic plot as ritual.
Horror Movies and Thrillers
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) presents a pregnant woman as part of a devilish ritual to terrify us with witchcraft as the great monster that creeps up on us when we least expect it, and in the people whom we trust. The ritual of witchcraft in several thrillers is used to present the last threat of the unknown. In Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011), a duo of policemen appear to face up to just another gang of crooks in a routine cops-and-robbers thriller, but as the plot advances and they uncover clues in their investigation they come across a sect that controls everything from behind the scenes. And which is what happens in the posthumous masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), with the ritual as a Lovecraftesque threat of what we cannot see and which overtakes us entirely with maximum mystery. All we know is that it is a force that has all the power of darkness. Or as occurred recently with the first season of the series True Detective (Cary Fukunaga, 2014), it is the evil that emerges through human means into our world and which is such a threat that it overwhelms the detective who, being a defender of eternal justice, has to divinely transcend his humanity in order to successfully close the case. In Witching & Bitching (Alex de la Iglesia, 2014) a similar operation is carried out, in a macabre-comical sense, in which a group of thieves on the run find themselves in a town of witches, where they are overcome by the feminine mystery and being thieves serves them poorly.
We can thus understand that in cinema, witchcraft is a symbol. It can be a representation of the feminine that cannot be explained on a blackboard and which can give it its archetypical character. In some ways it evokes the planetary connection that women naturally possess and which they have repressed in order to adapt and enter a patriarchal system, with witchcraft as their rebellion. It also projects the fear that the West manifests toward foreign and distant cultures, and above all in the case of Hollywood, which portrays magic as the threat that a different race represents, and which arouses suspicions of macabre plans. Finally, witchcraft, both in cinema and reality, alludes to the loss of control in the face of what we desire at an unconscious level, behavior that could affect us on a large scale if we were to achieve what we desire in an immediate reality. As such, perhaps, its representation in film satiates that desire to avoid it materializing in real life.
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