This year I celebrated Halloween by taking the day off of work and watching a witch-themed triple feature. This is not something I ever thought I’d do, because I’ve always had that issue with historical witch movies where it kinda bothers me to pretend there’s a such thing as witches, since that’s the superstitious bullshit that real life tyrants used as an excuse to torture and murder many innocent people in this country and elsewhere. But there were a couple witch-related movies I’d been thinking I’d like to rewatch, and at the same time I’d been thinking about my late mother, who loved to dress as a witch every Halloween. She painted her face green and glued on a warty latex nose with spirit gum. Some of the younger kids in the neighborhood were terrified of her, but she got a kick out of it. So I dedicate this witch-a-thon to her.
I chose to view them in order of when they take place: first Rob Eggers’ THE WITCH (1630s), then George A. Romero’s SEASON OF THE WITCH (1970s), and finally Robert Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM (twenty-teens).
I’m as surprised as anybody that I rewatched THE WITCH (2015) already. I know it’s been seven years since it came out, but these days I don’t usually have time to visit anything more than once unless it’s an old favorite or the rare FURY ROAD level knockout. If you go back to my review from when THE WITCH hit video, I had some still-relevant things to say about the divide between factions of horror fans, but I only kind of liked the movie, was pretty nitpicky about it, didn’t entirely feel it. What changed is that I loved Eggers’ third movie THE NORTHMAN. It’s still my #2 movie of 2022, and made me much more excited about him as a director. Sure enough I was able to appreciate THE WITCH much more when I came to it with admiration instead of skepticism.
It’s such a strong piece of work because all of the performances are really good, and each of the characters is interesting in a layered way. I think on this viewing I was most captivated by the dad, William (Ralph Ineson, who was in FIRST KNIGHT, and also played the actual Green Knight in GREEN KNIGHT). I figure he’s kind of the bad guy – his extreme religious beliefs and stubbornness drag his family away from their community to this remote place where they absolutely can’t fuckin cut it, and then when shit inevitably gets bad his religion causes him to mistrust his own children and treat them as evil beings, with disastrous results. But to me this time he didn’t come across as a bastard, he seems fairly nice, mostly well meaning, often gentler and more understanding than I expect him to be. He’s trying to provide food and keep his family happy. He should be more open with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, PROMETHEUS, and the Queen in THE GREEN KNIGHT) about what’s going on, but he’s very sincere about sneaking out to hunt for food or sell off some silver to get tools they need. Most of his fuck ups come from wanting to provide for his family.
Of course, there’s also shittiness that’s left unspoken. In the opening scene, when her father tells the community that the family is leaving, they just have to stand there, but Thomasin’s “wait- we’re doing what?” expression speaks volumes.
The oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL) takes after his father. He gets all puffed up about his duty as a (future) man to sneak out into the woods (where he’s not supposed to go) to hunt. The parents talk ominously about Caleb’s older sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, SPLIT, GLASS, PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE) becoming a woman, but they don’t notice that Caleb also notices, and has a funny feeling about it. Two shots represent him looking at his sister’s chest, so later when the witch appears to him as a woman with prominent cleavage (Sarah Stephens, SOLITARY MAN) you know that yep, she’s got his number.
Then he disappears until Thomasin finds him shivering and naked outside of the cottage. He seems sick and the family gathers around his bed praying for him, which is when all kinds of suspicion, paranoia and finger-pointing happens (and when it really starts to seem like the younger siblings Mercy [Ellie Grainger] and Jonas [Lucas Dawson] really are in the thrall of the witch or the goat or somebody), because they “don’t remember” their prayers and can’t say the words. The scene is good enough to overcome my boredom with possession-related horror. Caleb goes through terror and a couple different personalities and then breaks down talking about being safe in Jesus’ arms or something, but now he sounds so over the moon about Christianity it might be sarcastic? It’s too bad this kid hasn’t done much since then. I guess it’s a pretty specific talent that’s not gonna come up in AGENT CODY BANKS REBORN or whatever.
I don’t think I need to say much about Taylor-Joy, since it’s pretty well documented how good she is after The Queen’s Gambit and all that. But this was her first major role and the combination of the role and her performance made the rest of it possible. Thomasin too is just trying to fulfill her prescribed role in the family, including watching after the younger kids (whoops – Baby Samuel gets snatched by the witch of the woods during a game of peek-a-boo). The scene where Mom tries to strangle Thomasin and Thomasin kills her in self defense is really fuckin intense. She obviously doesn’t mean to do it, but as she’s laying there under the corpse of what was her last living relative maybe there’s a little relief mixed in with the horror, knowing her shitty life is a blank slate now. It’s hard to say.
I would be remiss not to mention the movie’s biggest contributions to pop culture, the goat Black Phillip and the phrase “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” If you don’t remember, the family has a goat who Mercy and Jonas like to rile up and sometimes casually claim that he told them things. There’s lots of tension looking at the motherfucker and wondering if it’s just kid stuff or if he really does pull a Chucky and talk to little kids when no one else is around. In a climactic moment Thomasin indeed gets him to talk to her in a ragged whisper. It’s fuckin chilling! Goats are just creepy animals in general, and Eggers does a great job of making him look ominous.
More challenging: doing the same with the bunny they encounter in the woods a couple times. Fingers crossed for THE WITCH ORIGINS: BUNNY. Anyway the point is yes Black Phillip, she would like to live deliciously. Everyone deserves to be happy.
On a first viewing I think I fretted that THE WITCH might be partly sincere in its warnings of spooky devil danger, but that seems silly when paired with THE NORTHMAN. I feel pretty confident that Eggers doesn’t believe in Valhalla, but he understands why it’s interesting to present the characters’ philosophy and mythology matter-of-factly as if it’s reality, trusting us to have our own opinions about it. THE WITCH takes the same approach to these Puritan characters, with all their greatest fears becoming reality.
But I actually forgot that one of the big horror moments is when the witch snatches the baby Samuel, mashes him up and rubs the gooey results all over her naked body! I’m against that. But I appreciate the bluntness of it. In a fairy tale you could say a witch snatched a baby, I wouldn’t really picture it like this. That’s fucked up.
(By the way, in case we’re gonna rehash the argument about whether or not Eggers is some “elevated” snoot who doesn’t want to be associated with horror, I found a good quote in, of all places, a talk between Eggers and Ari Aster on The A24 Podcast: “I completely understand why people don’t see THE WITCH as a horror movie, but it was certainly my attempt to make a horror movie… you see a witch flying on a broom stick… maybe that’s not scary, but it’s certainly a horror trope… It should be, even if it isn’t successfully so. But for my money that was horror.”)
Another reason THE WITCH works better for me in conjunction with THE NORTHMAN is that the themes seem complementary of each other. Amleth in THE NORTHMAN is living up to the masculine ideals his father taught him, believing it’s glorious to needlessly die in battle and abandon his wife and child for the sake of avenging an event he completely misunderstood. Thomasin, on the other hand, is rebelling against the limitations her parents and society put on her life as a young woman, though her version of a happy ending is likely just as misguided as Amleth’s if you take it as more than a metaphor.
I don’t know if she specifically realizes she’s throwing in with a bunch of baby smashers. She just knows they get to dance naked and fly and it’s delicious and all that. And they’re friends with animals. I think it’s safe to say this is not a 100% sound life decision without a chance of buyer’s remorse. Then again, if it was 350 years later and she was running away from home to live in a punk rock house she might be dealing with some scumbags here or there but it could still be preferable to what she left behind. That’s kinda what I get out of this. What’s she gonna do, go back to town and be an indentured servant, like they had planned for her? Or live in the woods by herself, hoping there really is an apple tree somewhere? Those options seem decidedly un-delicious. (Which is maybe what Amleth thought of his opportunity to stop warring and just be a husband and father. Dumbass.)
Organically, but maybe not coincidentally, THE NORTHMAN has an early scene of all men in animal furs dancing around a fire roaring like animals to prepare for battle, and THE WITCH has a late scene of all women dancing naked around a fire enjoying life. Men Are From Norse Paganism, Women Are From Wicca.
I always regretted skipping THE WITCH in the theater, because it’s clearly a movie that requires your focus and willingness to be submerged into that world and mood. This time I watched with headphones and really gave myself over to it, and I’m happy to say I loved it this time. They were right. A24 4 life.
SEASON OF THE WITCH (1973) was also released as HUNGRY WIVES (the title that comes up when you watch it on Shudder or Tubi and presumably the blu-ray) or JACK’S WIFE (the last line spoken in the movie). HUNGRY WIVES is funny because it’s not inaccurate except for the impression it gives as a sexploitation movie. But they should’ve saved that for one where the wives are cannibals. I like JACK’S WIFE because defining the main character as just the wife of a guy we don’t even see that much because he’s out of town for most of the movie very much fits its theme.
I’m pretty sure I watched this once back in the Anchor Bay VHS days, but if so I definitely didn’t get into it, and it didn’t leave much of an impression. This time I was much more open to it. It’s not a traditional horror movie, but it uses witchcraft as a metaphor about the life of an unhappily married middle aged woman sort of the way Romero’s MARTIN uses vampirism to talk about a disaffected young man (who we’d probly call an incel now). And it leaves it ambiguous whether a witch’s spells actually do anything, much like Martin may or may not really be a vampire.
Joan (Jan White, TOUCH ME NOT) is bored with her life in suburban Pittsburgh, her husband (Bill Thunhurst, THE CRAZIES) really doesn’t get her, and he’s a dick, and he’s away on business trips all the time, and occasionally he hits her (and then thinks telling her he’s sorry the next day absolves him). Presumably because of all these things she’s been having weird dreams. Her therapist (Neil Fisher, writer of Romero’s 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson) tells her that the person least qualified to interpret a dream is the dreamer, but I don’t know, man. I think Joan can figure out what it means when she dreams that her husband has her on a leash and puts her in a kennel before leaving on a trip.
The dreams at the beginning had me worried – lots of strangeness dubbed with chimes, ticking clocks and giggling, a dated type of surrealism much like Romero’s recently uncovered industrial film THE AMUSEMENT PARK (which was a chore for me to get through even though it’s only 50 minutes). Luckily he uses that stuff more sparingly here.
Joan enjoys going to – or at least does go to – her friends’ cocktail parties, where one of the gossip topics is that their new neighbor Marion (Ginger Greenwald) is into witchcraft. They laugh about it but Joan is curious enough to convince her friend Shirley (Ann Muffly, “Woman at Hanna Long’s,” FLASHDANCE) to come with her to meet Marion, get a tarot reading and hear about her coven.
When they go back to Joan’s place her college student daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) is hanging out with a student teacher she casually dates, Gregg (Raymond Laine, “Foss’ Man #1,” SUDDEN DEATH). This guy sees himself as a philosopher beatnik hippie guru or some shit, trying to blow their minds and offering to “turn them on” with pot. He embarrasses Shirley, who’s already quite drunk, by convincing her she’s stoned off of a regular cigarette. And he keeps telling Joan he’s “not trying to make it” with her. She kicks him out of the house but she’s clearly intrigued – in fact she already had a sexy dream about him before she even met him. Later she comes home, hears them having sex and, uh, enjoys herself. Nikki catches her and gets so pissed she runs away.
So this is a story about a buttoned-down lady getting curious about the more open lifestyle of the younger people, and since she’s alone in the house she has a window to try it out, both metaphorically (through witchcraft) and literally (by starting a no-strings-attached sexual relationship with Gregg). Actually she kind of conflates the two, because she does a spell to make Gregg come to her and believes that’s what did it, even though she also called him on the phone.
The relationship is interesting. Gregg seems like kind of a prick, but there’s also a certain charm to him, and you can see that it’s empowering to Joan to be able to have a casual relationship with this young hipster and decide when to break it off. But also he’s pretty relatable when she starts talking about her witchcraft stuff and tells him not to make fun of her, but he doesn’t know how to act like he respects it. It’s ironic because being the cool open-minded guy is most of his identity. Everybody curates what type of bullshit they’re open to, I guess.
One of the more genre elements is her reoccurring dream about a man in a rubber devil mask breaking into her house and attacking her. Could this be the first horror villain in a mass-produced Halloween mask? I have no idea. But he’s played by Bill Hinzman, who already has enough notoriety as the first zombie in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
And just like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, this one resolves things with a (possibly) mistaken shooting. After Joan has been dreaming about using Jack’s hunting shotgun to ward off the masked intruder, Jack comes home early from his trip, tries to get into the chained door, and she shoots him. I think it makes about the same amount of sense for it to be an honest mistake or an intentional act of freeing herself. Kinda like Thomasin when she kills her mom. And just like Thomasin, Joan immediately goes and joins a coven.
It was cool to watch this back-to-back with THE WITCH. In both movies witchcraft seems to represent a sense of freedom from men and Christianity and societal expectations. Joan too deserves to live deliciously. Thomasin looks joyful to the point of weeping as she floats into the sky at the end of her movie, and Joan seems like a total badass at the end of hers when she proudly declares “I’m a witch” to her friends at the cocktail party.
Just like THE WITCH I think you can just look at this as a metaphor and enjoy it as female empowerment, but from another angle you can see some irony there. At the beginning of the movie Joan dreams about her husband keeping her on a leash. At the end, when she joins the coven, part of the initiation ritual involves a red rope being tied around her neck before she crawls naked to an altar.
The difference is that this is her choice, she still seems to be in control. And my guess is that that’s how Romero meant it. But how much control is she in, really, when this stuff is all about doing the opposite of Christianity, to the point of writing down the Lord’s Prayer in reverse? If everything is about rebelling against Christianity then you’re still having your life dictated to you by Christianity. You’re responding to Christianity the same way Armond White responds to what he thinks is the critical consensus. Maybe there are better ways to be free. But I’m glad you’re searching for happiness in unorthodox places.
THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012) makes an interesting contrast to the other two because it’s about a woman who doesn’t seem to suffer any of the same social or religious pressures that the other movies are about. The protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS) isn’t married, is on some kind of break from a very understanding boyfriend, and has a cool job that she likes. She never acknowledges any religious background (though a nightmare she has in a church could be signaling something). When she’s made uncomfortable by an old neighbor lady talking about her desires I don’t think it’s because she’s too uptight to know how to yearn for sexual freedom and what not. So it’s not about the same things.
At the beginning of the movie Heidi is living a good life in that place where witches were once executed – as we see in stylish flashbacks featuring the great Meg Foster (THEY LIVE) totally going for it as the head of the Satan-worshipping coven. Heidi lives in an incredibly refurbished apartment in an old building. She’s locally famous as Heidi LaRoc of the Big H Team on WIQZ Salem Rocks (voted #1), along with her sometime boyfriend Whitey. Whitey’s real name is Herman, but they call him Whitey to differentiate from fellow Big H member Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree, DAWN OF THE DEAD). Note that Whitey is played by Jeff Daniel Phillips, who later played Herman Munster in Zombie’s THE MUNSTERS.
While they’re on the air playing rock ’n roll, doing wacky zoo team bullshit and interviewing satanic rock star Count Gorgann (Torsten Voges, 8MM) and local author Francis Mathias (Bruce Davison, a.k.a. Willard from the original WILLARD), who wrote a book about the witch trials, an unknown party drops off a record in a strange wooden box. It’s by someone called “The Lords” and when they play it on the air women all around Salem seem to go into a trance. I guess that means it’s a hit?
I remember coming out of the theater and telling my friend that yeah, I think I liked it. (Original review here.) It’s Rob Zombie’s most puzzling and least straight forward movie, but maybe also his most controlled and consistent. It’s a character driven movie with a good central performance and a good contrast between the ordinary things she does and the supernatural shit that happens to her. Example one: when she takes her dog Toby for a walk and stops in the park for a smoke she sees this motherfucker walking his goat:
Example two: a pretty great not-noticing-the-scary-thing-in-the-room when she turns on the kitchen light to feed Toby.
I like that the movie’s history-of-witchcraft expert Mathias is not some spooky guy, but an upbeat, likable academic who makes jokes, has a hot painter wife (Maria Conchita Alonso!) and works part time at the Salem wax museum. And when he goes to talk to another expert that guy is nice too and excited to get nerdy talking about this shit that nobody else cares about.
(There’s one laughable thing with Mathias though – he’s been researching this witch hunter named Hawthorne but when he finds out that’s Heidi’s real name he doesn’t think “oh shit, it can’t be, can it?” but instead pleasantly continues his internet research until he sees it on a family tree and yells “FUCK ME!” in shock.)
The other Hawthorne wrote about some witches playing evil music that controlled the women of Salem in the 17th century. He even included notes. Mathias has his wife play them on the piano to verify that it’s the same is on the Lords record.
Concurrent to all this Heidi has been experiencing some odd happenings with the supposedly empty apartment 5 down the hall, and having encounters with landlady Lacy (Judy Geeson, INSEMINOID) and her sisters Sonny (Dee Wallace, RED CHRISTMAS) and Megan (Patricia Quinn – Magenta from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW [a character Laurie dressed up as in Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II]). It’s actually kinda like SEASON OF THE WITCH when Heidi comes over for wine and Megan reads her palm and makes her uncomfortable talking about “the juices between your legs.”
“Megan can be a little adamant, you know, about these things,” Lacy explains.
For his part Zombie can be a little adamant about turning any scene into a kick ass heavy metal album cover. He loves his haggard witches with mud on their naked bodies, symbols painted on their heads, torches, staffs made of animal skulls, Mario Bava torture devices. In the pre-tradition of THE WITCH there’s lots of goat imagery and some naked fire dancing. But Zombie being Zombie, I’m happy to say, he also gets much weirder.
The second best scene happens about 36 minutes in when Toby leads her into apartment 5 late at night. The door is open and there’s a hall lit red by a large neon cross. She raises her hands up to it, possibly in a trance, as, in silhouette, a fuckin sasquatch walks up behind her! Then we/she see the sasquatch standing in the midst of some flames and trees and witches. I absolutely love that this is a movie Zombie called “grittier and darker” than his other films and “the most downbeat film of them all,” yet he threw in a totally unexplained sasquatch part. That’s what I want to see.
The #1 best scene is, of course, when she’s been smoking crack and the ladies take her down the hall and draw a symbol on the wall and suddenly apartment 5 is a huge ornate chamber with columns and a chandelier and she has skeleton facepaint on and she walks up a stairway to the strange creature who looks like a roasted turkey with a deformed human head and a bell tolls and he squeals like an alien pig as she vibrates, holding the ends of two long tentacles coming out of his open belly.
One thing that grounds all that is that it’s a really sympathetic portrait of an addict, partly because it waits 20 minutes to tell us she is one. That’s when she goes to group and suddenly the state of her relationship with Whitey makes so much more sense. He wants to be with her but he’s trying to give her the space she needs, and also feels bad about having given up on her at a low point. Unfortunately this witchy shit triggers her sickness again. The scene of her shakily passing cash through a metal door for some rock (politely whispering “thanks man”) is almost more sad than seeing her smoke it. It’s a really good performance.
Although this is a prime example of the “pretending there were actual dangerous Satan worshipping witches in Salem” problem, I never quite took it seriously because it’s created by an actual rock star and involves the ridiculous notion of rock music being an evil satanic spell. So it just seems like a put-on, prankishly playing along with the worst thing that some dumb asshole says about you just to rile them up for a laugh. I’d like to think there’s more meaning to it than that, but I’m not sure anything specific is intended. Remember what Joan’s therapist said about dreams in SEASON OF THE WITCH – the dreamer is the least qualified person to interpret them. Sometimes the same can be said of directors and their movies. In an interview with Complex, Zombie even described LORDS as a difficult-to-decipher dream:
“I want them to say, ‘I think I just went through an actual nightmare, and I’m still trying to sort it out,’ as opposed to a movie where they can easily explain what happens to Heidi and it’s all wrapped up nicely for them and they can walk out of the theater thinking, OK, everything got wrapped up perfectly for me.”
The climax seems to depict a battle for Heidi’s soul through weird demon imagery and perversions of organized Christianity, mixed with totems of rock ’n roll and cinema history. As Heidi hears what sounds like a vintage record of a fire and brimstone Christian sermon she sits between demonic masturbating bishops, and she’s wearing what looks like a King Diamond t-shirt (but it’s the movie’s fictional satanic death metal band Leviathan the Fleeing Serpent).
Did Zombie mean anything specific by pulling in Heidi’s bedroom mural of Georges Melies’ TRIP TO THE MOON? Maybe not, but I like to take it as dragging his other artistic medium into the satanic panic. Why not? This shit is dangerous too. BOO!
By the time the sermon says “But if we lose our battle to temptation and choose to ride upon the goat, we know what our agony will be,” Heidi is having a fun time literally riding a taxidermied goat in front of some neon flames, between what appears to be rows of urinals? Zombie invokes his past directing music videos with a quick cut montage of shock imagery (crucified mutant doll in front of flames, cheesy melting effect on religious artworks), but for the part where Heidi gives birth to a wiggly tentacle creature, like most of the biggest moments in the movie, he slows way down and the score by Griffin Boice and John 5 goes choral and orchestral. The aforementioned Best Scene in the Movie is set to Mozart, while the finale (the witches smiling as Heidi stands atop a pile of dead women descended from Salem villagers) uses The Velvet Underground. It all fits together.
Returning briefly to that THE WITCH issue of crowd-pleasing commercial horror vs. allegedly-pretentious arthouse shit, it’s interesting that LORDS is one of the first things Blumhouse did after becoming hitmakers. Coming off the success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS and SINISTER, Jason Blum approached Zombie with the offer to make any movie he wanted with 100% creative freedom as long as it was supernatural and stuck to a certain budget. Since he was coming off of a frustrating experience with the Weinsteins on HALLOWEEN I and II he found himself skewing toward the weirder shit he knew other producers would say no to.
If there’s no more meaning to it than the abstract shit I read into it, then it might not be the best finisher to this triple feature, but that’s no knock against it. I’d have to say my favorite witch movies are SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, which don’t really have literal meaning to me, but hit me hard every time with their style and atmosphere and yes, come to think of it, their rock ’n roll. THE LORDS OF SALEM is hardly an imitator, but it’s a worthier successor than most.
This triple feature was a great use of my Halloween time. I really enjoyed all three movies and the accidental interplay between them. Maybe LORDS suffered a little from being out of tune with the other two, but on the other hand it managed to deliver way more in the cool-shots-and-crazy-shit department. Maybe I needed that on order to go out with a bang.
I don’t think I’ll ever lose my hesitation about the witch thing, but maybe in this time of increasingly ludicrous superstition and conspiracy theories I’m starting to see the appeal of that Thomasin/Rob Zombie attitude. When they’re calling you a witch anyway you might as well lean into it.
p.s. I’m not planning to switch over to doing these epic multi-movie reviews all the time. That’s just the way it’s been working out lately!