February 27, 2020

Eight Movies About New England Witches You Should Watch

Although the Puritan era witch trials ended centuries ago, the fear of and fascination with witches still lingers in New England. Witchcraft doesn't die. It just bides its time and waits. 

Here is a short list of films, primarily horror movies, that deal with New England witches of several varieties. Watch them for entertainment or as cautionary tales. You'll never know what you might see out in the woods or what that mysterious neighbor is really up to. And don't forget: a witch hunt is always scarier than a witch.


Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead) (1960)
College student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) has an interest in the history of New England witchcraft. At the urging of her advisor (Christopher Lee) she decides to visit Whitewood, Massachusetts, where  a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake in 1692. Whitewood is a perpetually foggy and slightly surreal village filled with eccentric inhabitants but Nan settles in at the Raven's Inn to pursue her research. She soon discovers evidence that that Elizabeth Selwyn may not be dead. What else do you expect when your adviser is Christopher Lee?



I feel compelled to point out that witches in New England were executed by hanging, not by burning. That's just a minor quibble about an overall great horror movie, though. Horror Hotel starts out pretty mild but becomes surprisingly scary and has a shocking plot twist about halfway through. The black and white cinematography is atmospheric and creepy. Don't watch this one alone at night.

Dunwich Horror (1970)
I think I was ten or eleven years old when I first read H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror." I was so scared I had to stop reading halfway through (although I finished it the next day). This 1970 film version isn't particularly scary but is still a lot of fun. Once again we have a college student getting into trouble, but this time it's all-American sweetheart Sandra Dee as Nancy Wagner, a student at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. After a lecture by her professor Nancy is returning a copy of The Necronomicon to the library when she's approached by Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), a dreamy young occultist from rural Dunwich who just wants a peak inside the forbidden book. Her professor interrupts but Nancy ends up giving Wilbur a ride home. Faster than you can say "Yog-Sothoth!" she's drugged, hypnotized, and the focus of a demonic sex ritual...



This is definitely a product of it's time, with a psychedelic monster in the attic and hallucinations involving sinister pagan hippies. Nancy's ritualistic rape still feels shocking, though, particularly in this #MeToo moment and is the one serious note in what is otherwise campy Lovecraftian fun.

Crowhaven Farm (1970)
Maggie (Hope Lange) inherits an old farm in Essex County, Massachusetts after a relative dies in a bizarre accident. She and her husband Ben (Paul Burke) decide to leave New York City and relocate to the farm, hoping it will rekindle their failing marriage. After she learns a coven of witches was executed there in the 1600s, Maggie begins having visions of angry Puritans and to feel a strange sense of deja vu. Things get really weird when Maggie and Ben take in an orphaned adolescent girl who becomes sexually fixated on Ben. Will Maggie learn the  secret of Crowhaven Farm in time to save her marriage - and her life?



Crowhaven Farm was made for television and is fondly remembered by people who saw it when they were kids. I've only seen it as an adult. I thought it was kind of funny that the producers tried to pass off mountainous Southern California as Massachusetts and that the characters talk about Lowell like it's a huge metropolis. On the other hand, the orphaned girl is creepy in a few different ways and the movie does have a nice shocking ending.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978)
Another made for TV production, this two-part miniseries was based on Tom Tryon's bestselling 1973 novel Harvest Home. As in Crowhaven Farm, a couple leaves the big city for the country hoping to find a peaceful life. But the Connecticut village of Cornwall Coombe is more than your average rural farm community. It's also home to a pagan fertility cult ruled over by the Widow Fortune (Bette Davis), and she takes her religious duties very seriously. Every seven years the villagers choose a new man to preside as Corn King over the Harvest Home celebration. But why won't anyone tell the newcomers what happens at the festival?



I was debating if I should include this one on the list. On one hand, the villagers of Cornwall Coombe aren't Satan-worshipping spellcasters like some of the witches on this list. On the other hand, Tom Tryon was obviously inspired by the writings of anthropologist James Frazer and poet Robert Graves, two writers whose work also inspired the modern witch-cult of Wicca. And the Widow Fortune's interest in herbalism would resonate with a lot of Instagram witches today. Think of this one as the American version of The Wicker Man.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Once again Puritan-era witches return from the dead, but this time they're played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. Oh, and the movie's a comedy from Disney! But despite the comedic overtones the plot is still rather dark. Three executed witches who are accidentally resurrected by a teenage boy trying to impress his crush devise a plan to suck the souls out of all the children in Salem on Halloween to gain eternal life. Not the lightest of comedies!


 

This was a modest hit when it was released in theaters but gained a huge following in subsequent when it aired on cable and as a VHS and DVD rental. Hocus Pocus still brings in millions of viewers when it airs on cable, particularly around Halloween. I guess those witches do have some magic after all! One bonus attraction for New Englanders: many of the outdoor scenes were shot in Salem and Marblehead, giving the movie some authentic Massachusetts flavor.

The Crucible (1996)
All the movies I've mentioned so far have been horror movies, but The Crucible isn't. Based on Arthur Miller's classic 1953 play, this drama points out what the other movies don't: there weren't really any witches in Salem, just innocent people persecuted because of ignorance and hatred. Although The Crucible isn't 100% historically accurate it drives home its point with strong performances from Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as his accuser Abigail Williams.



Although The Crucible was praised by critics and nominated for multiple awards it didn't take in much money at the box office. I guess viewers would rather be scared by fictional witches than be reminded about the dark side of this country's past.

The Lords of Salem (2012)
When Salem radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) plays a record from an unknown band called the Lords of Salem she has an eerie vision of witches worshiping Satan. Her co-workers at the radio station brush it off as just a hallucination, but Heidi's not so sure, particularly when other strange things start to occur. Heidi's downstairs neighbors give her an ominous Tarot reading. A local historian interrogates Heidi about the Lords of Salem's music, which is oddly familiar to him. And most importantly, a hideous naked witch keeps materializing in Heidi's apartment...

 

The Lords of Salem was directed by horror-rocker Rob Zombie and I think it's probably the best movie he's made. It's beautiful to watch, with innovative costumes, sets and special effects. Although it is another variation on the "dead witches won't stay dead" theme it filled me with an impending sense of dread, making it one of the more effective movies on this list. Rob Zombie is also from my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and he ably captures the New England gloom with scenes shot on location in Salem.

The Witch (2015)
Another film made a New England native, Robert Eggers's The Witch made a big arthouse splash when it opened and also made a goat named Black Phillip a pop culture phenomenon. Much like Crowhaven Farm and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, it too focuses on a family whose plans to leave their old home and start anew are thwarted by witches, but this time the family in question is kicked out of a 17th century Puritan settlement and moves deep into the New England wilderness. Eggers worked hard to make the film feel like a window into the past, going so far as to incorporate snippets from 17th century documents into the script as dialogue. I think audiences expecting a traditional horror film were puzzled but The Witch is now considered a classic in the folk horror genre. 


Well, that wraps up my list. If you have any other suggestions please leave them in the comments. I'm always looking for good movies about witches.

10 comments:

K. A. Laity said...

A less well-known one here: https://kalaity.com/2017/07/07/film-for-a-friday-woman-who-came-back/

Why hasn't someone had the idea to make a film of The Witch of Blackbird Pond? At least as far as I can find.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for that one! I've never heard of it before. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a classic children's book so I'm surprised no one has filmed it.

Anonymous said...

Witches worshipping Satan? We don't even believe in Satan!

Unknown said...

Witches of Eastwick.

Peter Muise said...

Thank you for reminding me about Witches of Eastwick. Definitely should have been on the list!

Peter Muise said...

Regarding witches worshiping Satan: you're right, most modern witches don't worship the Devil (or even believe in him). The Puritans, however, fervently believed that witches forsook God and substituted the Devil in his place. I think the word witch has acquired new meaning since that time though!

Unknown said...

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100944/
The Witches (Anjelica Huston) along with Hocus Pocus and the Witches of Eastwick were my favorites as an adult.

Julia Catfeather said...

Thank you!

Unknown said...
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Rich Clabaugh said...

More movies to add to my 'Watch list'! Thanks Peter!