31 Days of Halloween: 14 terrifying witches from the movies

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Oct 23, 2015, 5:05 PM EDT

The witch is sort of the secret weapon of the horror genre. That's because a witch can take so many different forms. You can spot a mummy, or Frankenstein's creature, or usually even a vampire from a mile away. But a witch can appear as a housewife, a college professor, a hotel owner -- or, perhaps most frightening of all, an invisible presence that you can't even see coming.

Witches are also scary because, unlike a lot of other archetypal monsters, there's usually an intelligence at work. They're not mindless automatons like a mummy or a zombie, or driven by pure animal instincts like a werewolf. No, witches usually have an agenda, along with the supernatural or demonic resources to enact their plan and destroy whatever gets in their way without any explanation.

From 1922's creepy silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages to Scott Snyder's brilliant comic Wytches to the new Vin Diesel movie The Last Witch Hunter (which opens today) to next year's The Witch -- said to be one of the most frightening horror films ever -- these evil beings have always been a major if somewhat unsung part of the horror landscape. And the bigger cultural one too: Everyone knows the Wicked Witch of the West, or even lighter fare like Bewitched or Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But at their darkest -- like many of the 14 cinematic necromancers we present below -- witches can be the most horrifying monsters of all.

The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

For generations, Margaret Hamilton's performance as the Wicked Witch of the West in director Victor Fleming's all-time classic was the frightening movie villain(ness) to beat. And let's face it, the green-skinned sorceress is a pretty nasty piece of work: She plans to kill an innocent young girl and her little dog, sends mutant apes after our heroes and sets one of them, the Scarecrow, on fire -- twice! No wonder everyone across the otherwise merry old land of Oz is terrified of her -- as were so many of us.

Elizabeth Selwyn (The City of the Dead, a.k.a. Horror Hotel, 1960)

College student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is persuaded by her professor (Christopher Lee) to visit the town of Whitewood, Mass., to continue her study of witchcraft. Once in the fog-encased village, she discovers that she is to be sacrificed by a reincarnated witch (Patricia Jessel) and her coven. This movie scared the living hell out of this reporter when it was a staple on local New York TV channels, and it wields an eerie power thanks to its stark atmosphere and Jessel's cruel performance as the witch. The scene in which Selwyn and her black-robed followers drag Nan from a suddenly empty hotel down to their underground altar is still supremely chilling.

Asa Vajda (Black Sunday, 1960)

Mario Bava's masterpiece is not just one of Italy's finest genre outings, but one of the greatest Gothic horror films of all time. In addition to Bava's atmospheric direction, much of the credit goes to Barbara Steele's intense dual performance as both the 300-year-old witch Asa and her latter-day descendant Katia, whom the resurrected Asa intends to use as her gateway to immortality by drinking her blood. Shocking (for its time) violence and torture are balanced by surreal, dream-like imagery as Asa and her reanimated lover Javuto slaughter all who stand in their way. The opening sequence, in which Asa gets a spiked mask hammered onto her face, is unforgettable.

Tansy Taylor and Flora Carr (Burn, Witch, Burn! a.k.a. Night of the Eagle, 1962)

This cult gem from director Sidney Hayers and legendary genre writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (based on Fritz Leiber's classic novel Conjure Wife) features not one but two witches: Tansy (Janet Blair), who uses magic to advance the career of her college professor husband Norman (Peter Wyngarde), and Flora (Margaret Johnston), a vengeful university secretary who feels Norman's accomplishments have held her own husband back. Norman is a skeptic who is forced to believe in witchcraft when Flora begins a campaign of terror against the Taylors, culminating in a spell that leads him to hallucinate that a stone eagle has come to life and is attacking him. Burn, Witch, Burn! is a literate, adult supernatural thriller that has just gotten a new lease on life via its debut on Blu-ray. 

Roman and Minnie Castavet (Rosemary's Baby, 1968)

They look like such a harmless old couple, don't they? Sure, he's an odd duck and she likes to stick her nose in everyone's business, but they're kind of sweet and charming nonetheless. Until, of course, they drug an innocent young woman and allow her to be raped by Satan and impregnated with his child. The brilliance of Rosemary's Baby, both the novel and the classic film, is that it takes a witches coven -- led by Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon) -- and plants it right on Manhattan's Upper West Side. No fog, no gnarled trees, no castles -- just spacious and expensive Big Apple apartment living. And they're still both as creepy as hell, black robes or not.

Angel Blake (The Blood on Satan's Claw, 1970)

With its focus on physical manifestations of evil -- such as a patch of Satanic skin appearing on a girl's leg -- The Blood on Satan's Claw remains one of the queasier horror films of the early 1970s. Making it even more unsettling is the luminous presence of the beautiful Linda Hayden as Angel, the virginal young thing who turns into Satan's sorceress and sets about seducing the local priest right in his church, in a scene that barely made it past censors at the time. Angel -- ironically named and about as far from what you would expect a witch to look like as possible -- then presides over the corruption and torture of children as the Devil takes over an 18th century village in this British creepfest, which even makes its pastoral setting somehow seem sinister.

Lord Summerisle (The Wicker Man, 1973)

Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch technically, but the imposing ruler of the island of Summerisle and head of its dominant pagan religion is (like Roman Castavet) one of the screen's great but rare examples of a male witch. And what an example he is: Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) is never uncertain for a moment about his motivations, his objectives or the power of his beliefs, which state that a virgin must be sacrificed annually to the Celtic gods in order to have bountiful and healthy crops. Lee is majestic and terrifying in the role, which he often called his favorite among his more than 200 screen appearances, 

Mother Suspiriorum/Helena Markos (Suspiria, 1977)

The first and best of Italian director Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy takes place in a dance academy that is a front for a coven led by "the Mother of Sighs," one of three ancient and evil witches who manipulate events around the world. She remains unseen throughout most of Argento's groundbreaking, surreal movie -- until the very end, when she is revealed as a wizened hag whose formidable powers have weakened over the years. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, directing the gruesome murders of her own students by members of her coven. And don't forget her sisters, the Mother of Darkness (Inferno) and the Mother of Tears (The Mother of Tears).

The Old Hill Woman (Pumpkinhead, 1988)

She's not in the movie for all that long, but the old witch visited by Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), who wants revenge for the death of his son, is crucial to setting the story in motion and is a scary presence even in her relatively brief screen time. She's also the embodiment of what happens when human beings, driven by grief or wrath, mess around with the powers of the supernatural: once she creates the demonic Pumpkinhead for Ed to enact his vengeance, the cost to Ed's soul is unimaginably bleak. A pact with a witch usually does not end well.

Evangeline Ernst/Grand High Witch (The Witches, 1990)

More people should see this weirdly funny and dark cult film if only for Angelica Huston's blazing performance as the Grand High Witch, a mix of pure evil and sexiness that is one of the most deliciously over-the-top examples of pure female villainy ever. And underneath her sleek exterior -- which she literally rips off -- is a face that only the Devil himself could love. The Witches has so many great things going for it -- excellent work by the Henson creature shop and a witty script (based on a Roald Dahl novel) among them -- but this is Huston's show all the way, as she revels in turning children into mice and worse. 

Nancy Downs (The Craft, 1996)

The Craft was the inevitable mash-up of the teen coming-of-age movie and a horror tale, in which new girl at school Sarah (Robin Tunney) becomes friends with three fellow students who turn out to be practicing witches. Their leader is Nancy (Fairuza Balk in a film-stealing role), who uses her powers for more and more nefarious ends and becomes less of a human being along the way. The "teen witch" subgenre has been played out a lot more extensively on TV, but it was handled in this film with great care and attention to the characters. Nancy's embrace of the dark side and psychopathic reign of terror are a highlight in witch movie history.

Elly Kedward/The Blair Witch (The Blair Witch Project, 1999)

This film has divided and still divides people, mainly due to its "found footage" format, but the fact is that it remains one of the most purely terrifying cinematic experiences of the past two decades. And part of that is because of what the movie doesn't do, which is show you the frightening, malevolent thing that haunts the Burkittsville woods and stalks the three hapless young filmmakers who attempt to track her down. The spirit of Elly Kedward is a fearsome presence indeed, and her torment of the three main characters is ritualistic, inexplicable and ultimately ambiguous in its intent and aftermath. The power of the Blair Witch mythology alone is so strong that many filmmakers thought it was a true story.

Jadis, the White Witch (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 2005)

The Chronicles of Narnia film series never lived up to expectations, but this first entry remains a fine and often great cinematic fantasy bolstered by the always excellent Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. Jadis is a classic fantasy villain, bringing darkness to Narnia by freezing the land into the 100-Year Winter and turning all who are disloyal to her into stone. She is both seductive and malevolent, and her control over the many creatures that inhabit Narnia is vast. In a tale that is often thought of as being more child-friendly than, say, The Lord of the Rings, she is quite a dark and even disturbing presence indeed.

Mrs. Sylvia Ganush (Drag Me to Hell, 2009)

Sam Raimi's return to horror after spending six years with Spider-Man stars Alison Lohman as a bank loan officer who, despite her misgivings, denies a mortgage extension to the elderly, sickly Mrs. Ganush. Wrong move: Mrs. Ganush is a powerful gypsy sorceress who sets about making Lohman's life a living hell for the next few days, after which she will endure the title indignity to end it all. Mrs. Ganush is a festering, physically repulsive presence, and although she does not spend a lot of time onscreen -- like many other witches -- she haunts the story until its bleak finale.