Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of the Studios and Getty Images
This list was originally published in 2017 as part of Vulture’s Witch Week. We’ve added more movies and we’re republishing in honor of Hocus Pocus 2.
If you’re a horror-movie aficionado, you’ve seen more vampires, werewolves, zombies, and serial killers than you could shake a stick, stake, silver bullet, or arrest warrant at. Isn’t it high time that the witches of cinema also get the acclaim they deserve? A great witch movie is inherently compelling because it’s driven by a person — a woman, usually — who refuses to behave the way that society demands. What makes witch movies so fascinating as a collection, though, is their wide variety of tones and messages. Whether you’re into the fun-for-all-ages allure of Hocus Pocus (and its sequel, now on Disney+) or the blood-spewing charms of Black Sunday, somewhere out there is a pointy hat and broomstick that’ll fit you just right. (No disrespect to the wizards and witches of Hogwarts, but you’ll find this is a Harry Potter–free zone. For that, we kindly direct your attention to the rest of pop culture.)
Below, Vulture makes the case for the 21 best witch flicks ever made. Like witches themselves, these movies resist easy classification: Here you’ll find selections from horror and comedy, as well as entries that blend or defy both genres. But all are strange, surprising, and at least a little dangerous. Wouldst thou like to watch deliciously?
This haunting Swedish Danish silent film is part historical survey of medieval witchcraft and witch hunts, part dramatic re-creations thereof. With its groundbreaking use of stop-motion animation, double exposures, and other effects, the ominous and surrealist imagery of Häxan (Swedish for “witch”) remains indelible a century later. The film was originally banned in the U.S. for its explicit content because Americans were apparently less than thrilled to watch witches whip up a batch of unbaptized-baby stew or literally kiss Satan’s ass. Writer-director Benjamin Christensen — who acts in the film as both the Devil and Jesus — frames witch hunts as a mass social injustice borne out of ignorance, perpetrated in particular against the mentally ill.
An obvious choice, but for good reason. There is no spell-caster on film more iconic than Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, a role which left her with second- and third-degree burns in a production mishap and which required her to wear green makeup that contained toxic copper oxide. Even through all that suffering, Hamilton (who, by the way, was nearly two decades younger than Billie Burke, a.k.a. Glinda the Good Witch) made being wicked look like a lot of fun. But we almost didn’t get to enjoy this vision of evil at all: The Wicked Witch of the West is a fairly minor character in the L. Frank Baum books, in which she is broomless and un-green. Even the film version of the character was intended to be glamorous at first, with actress Gale Sondergaard originally cast as a Snow White’s Evil Queen–style figure, clad in black sequins and fake lashes longer than the Yellow Brick Road. Today, Hamilton’s artfully unappealing weirdo is precisely what we think of when we think of a witch: When children wear a witch costume for Halloween, it’s really a reflection of her that they’re imitating. Wicked is great and all, but the Wicked Witch requires no revisionist history to make you want to root for her. “Only bad witches are ugly,” says Glinda — who is kind of a jerk, honestly — but we submit that good witches are boring as hell.
Along with Bell, Book and Candle, this witty screwball comedy helped inspire the TV series Bewitched. Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father are burned at the stake as witches in Salem, but not before she curses their Puritan accuser Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March) and his descendants to suffer miserable marriages. Hundreds of years later, the two witches’ spirits escape, and Jennifer takes it upon herself to personally ensure the anguish of the latest man in the Wooley family line, Wallace (also March), who is running for governor of Massachusetts and about to be married. She assumes human form as an effervescent, banister-sliding seductress and sets out to ruin his life and seduce him away from his intended bride. Her plan derails when she accidentally consumes the love potion she’d intended for him and finds herself hopelessly besotted with her sworn enemy. Veronica Lake’s charms are already irresistible without any need for performance-enhancing magic, and the romance is sweet, despite the fact that she and Fredric March reportedly loathed one another in real life.
In this Kim Novak–Jimmy Stewart rom-com (basically the opposite of Vertigo, which came out six months earlier), a Manhattanite witch puts a love spell on her neighbor so he won’t marry her insufferable college nemesis. But the plan backfires spectacularly when she winds up falling head over broomstick for the guy — even though witches who fall in love lose their powers. It’s worth watching for Jack Lemmon’s performance as a bongo-playing warlock alone.
Widely censored after its release — and outright banned in the United Kingdom — Mario Bava’s influential masterpiece is rendered in stark yet stunning black and white. A long-ago executed witch rises from the dead, hell-bent on revenge, in a visual feast of castles and coffins and gore. Even today, the imagery is arresting, if not downright stomach-turning. This isn’t a movie for the squeamish: In the opening sequence, a spiked mask is hammered onto star Barbara Steele’s head, and later, scorpions crawl out of her grotesque, semi-preserved face.
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the novel by Ira Levin is one of the only films on this list (besides Häxan and I Married a Witch) that you’ll find in the Criterion Collection, but this horror movie’s fancy pedigree doesn’t make it any less viscerally upsetting. Rosemary’s Baby forever raised the bar for terrible neighbors. With her husband’s cooperation, a coven of Devil-worshipping ghouls occupy an Upper West Side apartment building and conspire to have a young woman Rosemary (Mia Farrow) raped and impregnated by Satan himself. Four out of five obstetricians agree that you should not accept prenatal “vitamin drinks” from the spooky lady down the hall (played by Ruth Gordon, in an Oscar-winning performance), especially if there is a nonzero chance your unborn child could be the Antichrist. Half a century later, the movie’s legacy is more potent than ever: Jordan Peele cited Rosemary’s Baby as a key inspiration for Get Out, and snippets of Rosemary’s dialogue were sampled on SZA’s EP S.
Angela Lansbury, human UNESCO site, stars in this hybrid live-action-animated musical that feels like Mary Poppins reached deep within her carpet bag and pulled out a tab of acid. (The similarities are more than coincidental: The two Disney projects share director Robert Stevenson, a scrapped song from Mary Poppins found its way into Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Julie Andrews was even originally offered the lead role.) Amid WWII, three Cockney orphans are evacuated from London to a sleepy English village where they are placed in the care of Eglantine Price (Lansbury, who as a teenager fled London during the Blitz herself), an “apprentice witch” eagerly studying a magic correspondence course. The delightful Oscar-winning visual effects combine techniques like the sodium vapor process and wirework to give life to Eglantine’s psychedelic flying bed and other inanimate-no-longer objects. Shoes are charmed into tap-dancing and nightgowns into waltzing. Bedknobs is also, lo and behold, an explicitly anti-fascist movie: Eglantine, a staunch supporter of the war effort, magically animates antique arms and armor housed in a museum to fight off literal Nazis. Keep calm and carry on.
In Suspiria, an American woman travels to Germany to enroll in a renowned dance academy, only to discover the ballet school is a front for a sinister coven. But the plot hardly matters because this is one of the most singularly beautiful movies you’ll ever see. Better yet, Dario Argento’s luscious Technicolor fever dream is paired with an equally iconic prog-rock score by Goblin. See also: Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria, an arthouse body-horror update on the original featuring limb-crunching choreography, Tilda Swinton, Tilda Swinton, and — oh, yeah — Tilda Swinton.
Okay, you got us — this British TV movie snuck its way onto the list as really more of an honorable mention. Sure, seeing baby Fairuza Balk wreak havoc at a boarding school for young witches makes The Worst Witch a worthy companion piece to The Craft, but its entire existence is more than justified by a single three-minute sequence. The Grand Wizard (eternal Halloween heartthrob Tim Curry, who, to his credit, is nothing if not committed) serenades a rapt audience of young witches in the synth-laden “Halloween Song,” accompanied by no shortage of the exact level of green-screen effects you’d expected from a British TV movie in 1986:
Anything can happen on Halloween
Your dog could turn into a cat
There may be a toad in your bass guitar
Or your sister could turn into a bat
These are among the better lyrics. It must be seen to be believed.
Three best friends — Michelle Pfeiffer (!), Susan Sarandon (!!), and Cher (!!!) — bond over their fantasies of a dream man, only for him to appear in the form of the mysterious, appealingly sinister Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson). It’s a classic story: Boy meets girl, boy seduces girl, boy meets and seduces the other two girls, boy is almost certainly the Devil, all three girls finally realize they’ve been witches this entire time. Also, as Racked once argued, this horror comedy’s aesthetics are extremely on point.
This Hayao Miyazaki animated feature was one of the very first movies from Studio Ghibli, the beloved Japanese anime powerhouse known for building worlds full of magic, possibility, and wonder that are populated with bold, adventurous children (particularly girls). The kid-friendly film centers on 13-year-old witch Kiki, who leaves home with her “familiar spirit” black cat and starts a delivery business via her broomstick. Magic powers aside, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a sweet story about a girl on the precipice of adulthood, learning to make her way in the world and rely on herself. Witches: They’re just like us!
In what could have easily been titled Teen Wolf for Girls, shy Louise (played by Blake’s big sister Robyn Lively) learns she’s a reincarnated witch and gains magical powers on her 16th birthday — which she promptly employs to become the most popular girl in school and win the attention of her crush. Nothing about Teen Witch is more magical than horror icon Zelda Rubinstein as the psychic who clocks Louise’s past life, but the very ’80s fashion is a close second: shoulder pads, bedazzled denim, tutus, perilously high-cut leotards. The cult favorite has spawned Rocky Horror style live singalong screenings thanks to an incomparably strange soundtrack — consider the self-explanatory “I Like Boys,” or “Top That,” the best-worst magical rap song in film history. To date, anyway.
Based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name (and remade in 2020 starring Anne Hathaway), The Witches is far more disturbing than your average family movie, which is precisely why it’s so great. It suggests to kids that any woman could in fact be a witch — a witch who is plotting your demise at this very moment. A little boy stumbles upon a convention of murderous, child-hating witches who keep their scabby bald heads and gruesome claws (the work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) hidden beneath wigs and gloves. Anjelica Huston stars as the Grand High Witch, who speaks in an ambiguously European accent and is, therefore, unambiguously evil.
In recent years, Hocus Pocus has become a cult-classic Halloween mainstay, ruling the airwaves as dominantly as A Christmas Story does in December. There’s a good reason for that: It’s the perfect Halloween movie, and a must-watch for aspiring young witches. The Sanderson Sisters — played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy — are resurrected 300 years after their deaths to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting trick-or-treaters of Salem, Massachusetts. Also in the mix are a centuries-old talking cat that contains the soul of a boy enchanted by the witches, 11-year-old Thora Birch, a zombie, and an all-time great cover of “I Put a Spell on You.”
Do your favorite tenth-grader a solid and slip her a copy of The Craft while she works on her umpteenth essay about The Crucible. This ’90s horror flick about a coven of high-school outcasts holds up quite well, as does its dark brand of girl power. And I do mean dark: not just in terms of “the rites to Manon” performed by the girls, but also the film’s grappling with serious issues like suicide and rape. Robin Tunney is technically the lead character as bland white witch Sarah, and sister sorceresses Neve Campbell and Rachel True are both delightful as Bonnie and Rochelle, but make no mistake, this is Fairuza Balk’s movie. She’s all blue eyes and snarl as the unhinged Nancy, for whose friendship I would gladly drop a small fortune at Hot Topic, even if it’d end with her trying to kill me.
This gorgeous southern gothic drama, set in 1960s Louisiana and directed by Kasi Lemmons, is a moody meditation on family, mysticism, and sex. Ten-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett) witnesses her womanizing doctor father (Samuel L. Jackson) cheating on her mother. After turning to her fortune-telling aunt for guidance — and following a drunken, hazily understood act of violence — Eve seeks out a local voodoo practitioner (Diahann Carroll) for revenge.
Do you ever stop and think about how lucky humankind is that a movie exists in which Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman play eccentric, modern-day sister witches? Well, thank the Goddess for Practical Magic. Widowed mother Sally (Bullock) is reserved but powerful; Gillian (Kidman) is an irresistible free spirit. After killing Gillian’s abusive boyfriend Jimmy — who is also a serial killer because sure, why not? — the women flee to the sleepy Massachusetts town where they grew up. A handsome law enforcement officer (Aidan Quinn) soon shows up their doorstep, and so does Jimmy’s vengeful spirit. Bonus: Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest steal scenes as Sally and Gillian’s goofy, blender-enchanting aunts!
What accounting of great cinema would be complete without at least one Disney Channel Original Movie? Thirteen-year-old Marnie Cromwell discovers she’s the half-human heiress to a grand family legacy of witchcraft in Halloweentown — a realm inhabited by all manner of monsters from which a portal to the mortal world only opens on October 31. Against her mother’s wishes, Marnie follows her grandmother, Agatha (Debbie Reynolds), to Halloweentown to begin her magical training. This high-camp, low-budget nostalgia trip has ridden the Windsweeper 5000 to cult status in the decades since its premiere. The Cromwell witches are certainly the main attraction, but a large part of Halloweentown’s oddball, Spirit Halloween clearance-rack appeal is the admirable diversity among its population: A local census would enumerate vampires, elves, trolls, goblins, golems, werecats, an animatronic taxi-driving skeleton cabbie, and at least one hybrid plant-woman. Who wouldn’t want to visit a spooky utopia where all manner of freaks are made to feel welcome? As Agatha says, “Being normal is vastly overrated.”
The foremother of the found-footage genre follows three filmmakers lost in the Black Hills Forest, seeking out the strange old woman who’s rumored to haunt the woods. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well for them. Blair Witch was a global phenomenon, with a viral marketing campaign that suggested the actors were actually missing and presumed dead. But for all its parodies and pop-culture overexposure, the movie is still scary as hell. That said, you’d be well advised to skip the sequels, and the poor townspeople of Burkittsville, Maryland, would strongly prefer if you left them alone.
After a woman flees the investigation into her husband’s suspicious death in San Francisco for the California coast, she takes up residence in an apartment in a gothic mansion decorated to resemble her beloved tarot deck. There, she embarks on a single-minded pursuit of potion-enhanced love and lust, with all the seduction interrupted only by the occasional murder. Auteur Anna Biller — who wrote, directed, and produced The Love Witch, in addition to serving as its editor, production designer, costume designer, and composer — painstakingly crafted this gloriously ’60s-exploitation movie turned feminist satire, heavy on retro glamour and sensuality.
This A24 gem is a slow burn with a heart-stopping ending. Set in 17th-century New England, a family of religious exiles grow suspicious of their teenage daughter after her newborn brother is mysteriously abducted. It’s tough to say which idea in The Witch is more frightening to confront: the evil that lurks in the dark woods, or the paranoia and suspicion that seizes the secluded farmstead? If you should come upon a goat named Black Phillip, tell him we say hi.