Witch tales are a one horror staple that puts strong, powerful women to the forefront of stories. Women are ever-present in horror, but rarely are they able to play characters in which they are in control and have the power to move their fate against an enemy. I’m not referring to the “old witch cameo” where she bestows powers or grants a wish and we don’t see her for the rest of the film. I’m talking about stories of young witches who harness their power in order to have the lives they want. These stories are often considered to be cautionary tales of selfishness, but I don’t quite see them that way.
In a society where women are treated as vapid and shallow for wanting nice things for themselves, tales of witches harnessing their femme power to achieve their goals can be refreshing. The media is saturated with stories about men who come into wealth and power simply by virtue of being “the chosen one”. Those stories tend to portray these men as unlikely heroes who just need to learn how to use their powers properly, and then they can save the day. With women, power is portrayed as inherently evil and stories about them tend to end with their power being taken away.
Films like The Witches of Eastwick and The Love Witch exemplify the power women can have in stories when they aren’t constrained by misogynist notions that villainize women’s power. The power they exhibit is not just the power to fight back, but the power to guide their own existence in spite of the influence of men.
For your consideration, two witchy films for your horror library.
The Witches of Eastwick
George Miller’s 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick is one of the best overlooked horror-fantasies of all time. Although the film gained positive reviews upon its release, the film is notoriously absent from the Halloween cult canon. Even a 2009 television spinoff of the film was widely ignored and snatched off the air in a matter of months. All of this is a shame, because the film itself is one of the most visually striking and well-crafted film of its kind.
In the film, three young, single, lonely women uncover their shared supernatural power. They find out they’re witches at the lowest points in their lives, and it changes everything. As their powers intensify they learn how to indulge in their desires. Together with their one male partner, they embark on a surprisingly functional polyamorous relationship. Of course, things all go to Hell over time. The women become to wrapped up in their world of sex and decadence, and the conservative community they live in begins to shun them.
A thing that struck me about this film in recent years is how Jack Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne can be easily applied as a commentary on bad male allies. Van Horne (who is obviously the Devil) lures in Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon) and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) into his home by ranting about how unfair the world is to women. He presents the prospect of being his harem as an escape from a sexist world. He talks openly about how much he loves women and congratulates himself when he makes his harem happy.
But the moment the witches want to leave him, everything changes. He becomes angry, possessive and obsessive in his efforts to win them back. He even gives Sukie a painful medical condition as punishment. By the end of the film he’s openly cursing women. One scene has him yelling in a church about how women are ungrateful and not to be trusted. His stance on women completely flips, and all it takes to set that off is being dumped.
When everything’s said and done, the film refuses to punish the witches for their actions. The moral of the story seems to be that they never Van Horne in the first place. All they needed was each other; their power is strong with or without a man.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is one of the most brilliant horror films to come out in recent yeards and it has already become one of my all-time favorites. The film is an openly feminist tale about a heartbroken young witch (Samantha Robinson) who is looking for love and is always disappointed by what she finds. She devotes her magic to the often confounding goal of finding the right man to love her. Harnessing her sexuality, he entrances men causing them to become obsessed with her.
This is the crux of the plot, but the film isn’t really about men. It’s about the witch, Elaine, and how she tries to heal her emotional wounds with magic. She is a woman who remade herself to become exactly what men wanted, and yet they continue to deny her the love she feels that she deserves. The film is filled with commentary on the confusing nature of male desire within a patriarchal society. Men approach relationships from a place of power and expect women to bend to their various needs, without considering that they may break. Women must be sexy, but respectable. Powerful, but with savviness to lead men to believe that they are in charge.
The Love Witch is a film that has a reverence for women and respect for the power of female sexuality. It celebrates femininity, de-fetishizing the female form and celebrating its beauty and eroticism in a natural way. The film is a celebration of femme power and the potential unbridled ferocity of women. Through witchcraft, Elaine is able to control her fate in a male-dominated world that tried to crush her spirit. By uncovering her power, she is able to gain a sense of control, even if she ultimately can’t get everything she wants.
As with The Witches of Eastwick, the film refuses to condemn Elaine for her actions, even as the community around her passes swift judgment. Elaine is where our sympathies lie and her quest for love is seen as justifiable, even when considering her tragedy. Elaine also overcomes a man; the square-jawed alpha-male Griff (Gian Keys) who resists her magical influence. With him, she could have had the love she desired, but it would be at the expense of her spiritual freedom. In the end, Elaine chooses herself and cements herself as one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary horror.