All Hallows’ Eve is traditionally a time for honouring the dead, and also a time for feasting, so why not feast on some of the more spellbinding supernatural films this Halloween.
Häxan (1922, directed by Benjamin Christensen)
Danish film Häxan (subtitled Witchcraft Through the Ages for its English release) is both a horror film and a fascinating documentary on the history of the witch. Mythologising the history of magic, the film begins: ‘the belief in sorcery and witchcraft is probably as old as mankind.’ Upon its release, Häxan was banned in several countries for what were deemed pornographic and vulgar scenes, including representations of female nudity and hell. One controversial scene features the devil threatening a nun with a dagger, who then knocks her out while tormenting her with his rough, wiggling tongue. The devil, says narrator and director Benjamin Christensen, manifests in multiple forms–a raging demon, a nightmare, a seducer, a lover, and a knight. (Also, perhaps, a feline.) He also appears in his most sinister incarnation: the evil clergyman. A silent film, Häxan’s true power and beauty lies in its imagery, a play of shadows and darkness, flickers of evil and fear.
Bell, Book and Candle (1958, directed by Richard Quine)
Long before Elizabeth Montgomery made witches fashionable in Bewitched, Hollywood was bringing them to the screen in style. One of the best things about 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle is Kim Novak’s outfits, a mixture of fitted blacks and rich, flowing velvets. With Jack Lemmon as her warlock brother, and featuring two ‘kooky’ red-headed witches as mentors, Novak seduces James Stewart (using witchcraft, of course). ‘There’s always a big market for the supernatural,’ we are told, and Bell, Book and Candle observes it in modern society, infiltrating New York City’s boroughs.The film borders on tacky: witches make potions in dark, atmospheric living rooms (‘a trip to the Brooklyn harpie’) and cast spells with flashes of lucid emerald light. But the moral of the film seems to be that, while humans are capable of love, they also have a very boring colour palette and no imagination. Being a witch is much more fun.
I Married A Witch (1942, directed by René Clair)
If any film is going to prove that witches have more fun, René Clair’s enchanting I Married A Witch is certainly the one. Veronica Lake is the witch, Jennifer, except joyfully, Veronica Lake can never be anyone but herself, in anything. Beginning as a bodiless evil spirit flying a broomstick, Jennifer ends up with Lake’s body, wearing only a fur coat and ankle boots and Lake’s own iconic hairstyle. It was Lake’s great fortune and curse that she could only ever perform as herself on screen; unable to act through her bewitching demeanor, she had a very short, but memorable, career. The film’s pace might seem slightly antiquated, but it’s worth sticking with–I Married a Witch offers a love story and a glimpse of magic through the unique lens of screwball comedy and camp sophistication.
La Belle et la Bête (1946, directed by Jean Cocteau)
In 1946, Jean Cocteau directed La Belle et la Bête, a sublime exploration of the fantastic, mystical, otherworldly allure of magic on earth. Its lyrical style recalls Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher, which makes for perfectly surrealist, haunting bedtime viewing. In this adaptation of the fairytale, objects and characters, real and inanimate, are affected with an ethereal magnificence, making the supernatural seem both desirable and unbearable. Characters appear through walls by magic, and when Belle cries tears of diamonds, they are feared because they ‘could be the devil’s work.’ Belle’s supernatural experience is dismissed by her family and friends as a nightmare but the charm is seductive and real, a marvellous blur of terror and desire.
Hocus Pocus (1993, directed by Kenny Ortega)
I Married A Witch and La Belle et la Bête shine under a sheen of gossamer light, both as products of the 1940s and the stylishness of their visually-minded, surrealist-influenced directors. But as a child of the ’90s, my favourite Halloween film is Hocus Pocus, for reasons including Bette Midler’s flamboyant theatricality and this musical scene. Harvesting the comedic finesse of Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as three Salem-era witches, choreographer Kenny Ortega directs this familiar tale as an enjoyable modern-day farce. Famous for staging Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour and adapting it to film, Ortega’s background as a choreographer comes through in every scene and the witches seem to dance throughout the entire film. The best part of Halloween is its celebration of exaggeration, and Hocus Pocus embraces this spirit in a gloriously camp way.
Eloise Ross is a Killings columnist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University. Her research interests include cinematic affect, phenomenologies of sound, and the senses. She infrequently writes at cinemelo.wordpress.com, and tweets more often at @EloiseLoRoss.