Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) – An engrossing and often overlooked silent masterpiece from Sweden by Benjamin Christensen takes a detailed and serious look at witchcraft, paganism, witch-hunting and hysteria and tries to find a correlation between the misunderstandings that might have led to the gruesome executions of witches during medieval times. Highly controversial during its release for its frightening depictions (which included nudity, suggested sex and torture, among other things), Haxan won mass appeal for its direct, almost documentary-style approach to its subject matter, and its daring (for its time) portrayals.
Black Sunday (1960) – Mario Bava’s eerie classic about a vengeful witch (played by a chillingly bug-eyed Barbara Steele) and her servant coming back from the grave to complete the curse she placed on her family by attempting to possess a descendant 200 years after her execution (also played by Steele). Some of the film’s more shocking acts of violence – including a spiked mask smashed into a witch’s face – only punctuate the rich, gothic atmosphere of dread Bava creates from the onset.
Suspiria (1977) – An American dance student enlists in a European ballet academy run by a coven of evil witches. Brutal murders, frightening paranormal occurrences and a horrifying beast lurk around every corner of the school as the young dancers quickly realize they’re all part of a much larger, more sinister scheme. On top of being truly terrifying, Argento’s masterpiece might possibly be the most visually beautiful horror film ever made.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988) – One of the last releases of Roger Corman’s waning New World Pictures, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark brought the sexy Goth valley girl from network television’s Movie Macabre to the big screen, in this comedy about Elvira inheriting an old, haunted Massachusetts mansion and its possessions from her great aunt – who happened to be a witch. When the conservative townspeople get a load of their curvy new resident who plans on screening old B-movie horror films in their theater, they get more than little riled up…and things don’t exactly get better when Elvira mistakes an old book of hexes her aunt left behind as a cookbook, unleashing accidental love potions and casserole creatures. Tongue-in-cheek as only the great Elvira can get away with, the movie is primarily a goofy comedy, but still manages to incorporate some fun make-up effects, evil witch/warlock battles and some impressive titty-tassel twirling that should leave Elvira’s male fan base drooling.
Pumpkinhead (1988) – When his son is killed in an accident near his shop by some city kids, a desperate storekeeper turns to a backwoods witch to exact vengeance. She resurrects a ghastly demon known as Pumpkinhead to bump off the kids one-by-one on the storekeeper’s behalf, but all curses come with a deadly price. Based on a poem by Ed Justin, effects wizard Stan Winston directs this frightening tale of monsters, black magic and revenge, all while a truly horrifying creature lurks around the woods, sadistically killing anyone that dares try to stop it. The Pumpkinhead creature itself is a marvel of practical special effects, as is the eerie witch make-up of Haggis, the backwoods wretch that brings it to life. Powerful performances by the entire cast only enhance an already engaging story.
The Witches (1990) – Angelica Huston gives a gleefully wicked performance as the head of an international coven of witches, holding a convention in a high-class hotel to plot the destruction of the world’s children by turning them into mice with hexed chocolate. Based on the book by “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl, this Jim Henson-produced fantasy might be geared toward kids, but will likely scare the hell out of them with ghastly witch make-up effects and some truly horrifying puppeteering. A great deal of levity and a sense of adventure keep it from being too grim, but it’s definitely one of the darker films made for younger audiences.
The Craft (1996) – Released only a few months prior to Wes Craven’s teen slasher blockbuster Scream (which also starred a young Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich), Andrew Fleming’s The Craft, at a glance, appears to be just another run-of-the-mill, teen-angsty, network television-style chiller, but has far more evil and horror up its sleeves than you would assume, as four outcast girls from a Catholic prep high school realize they have the ability to cast spells and curses. Soon the power gets to the heads of three of them, who begin using their darker abilities against people they despise, leaving it up to one to try and reign in her “friends” using any means necessary. The witchcraft showdown during the film’s finale is a dark delight, and the chilling performance by Fairuza Balk is tough to shake!
The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Love the film or hate it, The Blair Witch Project raked in millions with a clever marketing campaign that forced viewers to wonder if the chilling “found footage” of 3 filmmakers who became hopelessly lost (and eventually hunted by an evil entity) in the woods of Maryland to uncover evidence of The Blair Witch was, indeed, real. Polarized audiences either found the film’s lack of visual frights too blasé, or were creeped out beyond reason by its subtlety, but no matter what side of the isle you sat in, the film went on to revitalize the horror genre within the independent markets, and has gone on to remain one of the most iconic and debated films in the “found footage” subgenre.
The Good Sisters (2009) – Breanne and Kindra Good (played by cult faves Debbie Rochon and April Monique Burrill) are two quiet, suburban sisters who happen to be descendants of a witch killed during the Salem witch trials. They practice witchcraft in the privacy of their home and keep to themselves, but their peaceful isolation is disrupted by a new neighbor who may or may not be poking around in their business for reasons unknown. Written and directed by April’s husband Jimmyo Burrill (both of whom brought us the hit Chainsaw Sally), the film is an engaging, subtle and sexy paranoia yarn that boasts fantastic performances by the two leads and some truly startling moments of sudden violence.
The Conjuring (2013) – Insidious director James Wan directs this throwback to haunted house and possession films of the 70s like The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist with his adaptation of a case investigated by demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who came to the aid of a family besieged by the evil spirit of a witch who cursed the land their home resides on before committing suicide in the tree out in their backyard. Based on actual events, the film has more scares and chills per square inch than any film of its type in the last decade.