Friday, March 6, 2015

Witches aren't scary - except when they are

Witches are just as prominent in the coterie of Halloween baddies as ghosts, goblins, vampires, mummies and zombies. But their union has not been doing a great job with PR. While many of those others can be quite frightening, witches are often consigned to the category of "funny" monsters. They may cackle and they may have green skin, but we can usually laugh them off. They're harmless.

Given this perception, it sometimes surprises me how many truly chilling movies there are where witches are the primary villains.

In each case that I have acknowledged this, I've written it off as an exception to the rule. But how many exceptions can you have before you start re-thinking the rule?

Here are five such movies, starting with the one I re-watched on Sunday night for the first time since 2006:

1) Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento) - I have to admit, the first two times I watched Suspiria, I thought the opening 15 minutes so terrifying that the rest of the movie inevitably paled by comparison. However, that opening is terrific enough that I went ahead and bought the movie on the strength of those 15 minutes alone. (The Goblins score certainly helped grease the transaction.) In thinking about Suspiria, I would sometimes tell myself that witches being the villains are a primary example of why the rest of the movie doesn't live up to that opening, when the identity of those antagonists has yet to be established. This time, though, the whole movie filled me with dread, and I appreciated certain things that maybe didn't land as effectively on previous viewings: like the supernatural, undead snoring of the witch Helena Markos, or that mysterious room in the top floor of the dance academy where the witches go to perform their rituals at night. The witches discomfited me enough on this viewing to inspire this post.

2) The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez) - It's right there in the title, but I bet people don't often consider the fact that what they're afraid of in this movie is witches. Or, one witch in particular. But as with Suspiria, it's scary as hell, and some people consider this one of the most frightening movies they've ever seen. Perhaps the key is that you really don't know what you're afraid of in this movie -- you know they're looking for a witch, but all you actually see is inconclusive evidence of evil, all you hear are noises that your imagination conflates into whatever terrorizes it the most. But when you come right down to it, it's a witch that's giving us the spooks when we watch this, the granddaddy of the modern found footage movement.

3) Paranormal Activity (2009, Oren Peli) - I'm just now realizing that both of the most successful found footage horror movies of recent years use witches as their monsters. You find this out to a greater extent in the sequels to Paranormal Activity as the mythology becomes better developed, but it's a coven of witches at the center of all the spooky happenings in these movies. You get frightening flashes of them from time to time, and they are ghastly creatures indeed.

4) Rosemary's Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) - Yes, even Rosemary's Baby features witches -- witches in cahoots with the devil. Witches are the devil's servants, and never has that been more evident than when they ensnare a woman for the devil to impregnate. So again, as in Blair Witch, it's not what we see of the witch that scares us so much -- it's what we don't see. Minnie and Roman Castavet look and usually act like harmless old New York busybodies ... until we see what they are really like, through glimpses of a drugged haze, and near the end when the jig is finally up. Everything that's unholy and unsavory about Rosemary's Baby is tied to their status as these practitioners of the occult.

5) The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) - And why not? Although Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West is in many ways the template for our modern green-skinned Halloween witch, she does not soft pedal the role in the least. And though she may not be terrifying to a lot of adults, her shrieking intensity has some real balls to it, and could scare the pants off plenty a little kid. I'm sure she scared me when I was young enough ... though I think the flying monkeys were slightly more traumatizing in that regard.

And Hollywood knows we're still secretly horrified by witches. Next up is this year's The Witch, which won the directing award at Sundance.

It may just be the next one to turn our skin green.

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