Witches and the Devil have terrified audiences since the earliest days of cinema. Scenes of witchcraft and horned demonic figures tormenting good and innocent people make up some of the scariest moments in horror film history. Witches that appear in all kinds of movies, from Halloween set childrens’ films to nightmarish creature features, have captivated audiences worldwide. These subjects will always be taboo, and regardless of how they are portrayed, there’s no denying their place in horror.
With the release of the new film The Witch from writer and director Robert Eggers, there has been a wave of publicity and word of mouth that has made the movie the talk of horror fans everywhere. People are divided between whether the film is a truly horrific masterpiece, or whether it is even worth seeing at all. As the discussion continues to mount, we here at Fandom have decided to look at some of the most controversial films featuring both Satan and witchcraft on screen.
The newest entry in the genre, The Witch has seen audiences walk out of theaters with very mixed reviews. While the marketing states that the film is “dread soaked and nightmarish,” self-proclaimed horror buffs have been underwhelmed. What makes this all the more interesting and controversial is the involvement from The Satanic Temple organization who has adopted the film as “a transformative Satanic experience.” This statement alone is enough to perk up the ears of any churchgoer.
What The Witch actually is mainly concerns a family struggling to survive the 17th century American wilderness after being banished from their village. Disturbing events unfold as the family begins to fall apart when their youngest is stolen by an apparent witch that lives in the woods. It is revealed over the course of the film that the devil has had influence, but the unrelenting horror experience fans expected from the commercials never really surmounts to anything more than a palatable sense of dread. The film is excellent in production and story, but more than anything it is a family drama instead of a graphic horror show.
The Lords of Salem
Rob Zombie has been pushing the public’s buttons since the early days of his music career. No other rock star has had the kind of success or following as a feature film director as the former White Zombie frontman has. The Lords of Salem followed in the footsteps of Zombie’s extremely divisive remakes of John Carpenter’s Halloween films, and before those the man had shocked audiences and earned cult status with House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.
The Lords of Salem took audiences to the next level of what Rob Zombie was capable of behind the camera. The film is based of the original story written by the director after years of living around Salem, Massachusetts and studying the folklore and historical accounts of what took place during the Salem Witch Trials. Taking plenty of artistic liberty, Zombie made a very graphic film featuring some truly bizarre hallucination sequences and plenty of scenes involving gore and nudity. Audiences still reel from the film despite it being compared to the likes of Lucio Fulci and Stanley Kubrick.
Steve Miner’s film about an evil warlock who is transported to 1980s Los Angeles has been overlooked by the public for years. Written by David Twohy and based on folk tales and legends surrounding witchcraft and black magic, the film has suffered from a terrible reputation due to a horrific real life incident that occurred in the mid 90s. Kids who grew up hearing about Warlock on the playground were told about a child who was killed when some teenagers attempted to recreate ghoulish scenes from the film, and disturbingly that wasn’t far from the truth.
Despite its bad reputation, Warlock is an incredibly entertaining film that is chock full of references to old world witchcraft. The movie contains some cheap graphics and laughs, but still delivers great performances from Richard E. Grant as the witch hunter Redferne and Julian Sands as the titular Warlock. Even the film’s cut scenes have become the stuff of legend with the disturbing death of the psychic channeler played by Mary Woronov and the censored dialogue that features the warlock proclaiming himself to be the satanic messiah.
Despite all of the controversy surrounding the life of director Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby has become one of the most recognizable American horror films ever made next to The Exorcist. Audiences across the globe were horrified by not just the content of the film, but by the entire idea of the story. Adapted from the novel by Ira Levin, the film immediately became a sensation upon release and plenty of rumors surrounding the production invaded the cultural zeitgeist.
Set in the mid 1960s, the film concerns the story of a husband and wife who move in to a plush apartment in New York. The main character Rosemary played by Mia Farrow realizes that she is the victim of a plot to bring the antichrist into the world. The graphic nature of the film’s scenes involving Rosemary being drugged by a witches’ coven and subsequently sexually assaulted by Satan in the flesh, sent a massive shockwave through audiences and still haunts people to this day.
The experimental cinema of director Kenneth Anger has always been controversial to the public. Deemed a Satanist and a menace, Anger has had plenty of negative criticism surrounding his film work and writings. The rumors surrounding Lucifer Rising and the scenes from the film that became the short art piece entitled Invocation of My Demon Brother became the stuff of whispered film legend and fueled the fire of religious zealots for decades.
Cited as one of the primary reasons for the “Satanic Panic” frenzy that swept the United States after the 1970s, Kenneth Anger’s films featured controversial images of satan worship and black magic ceremony. Invocation featured scattered scenes of an animal funeral lead by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and Lucifer Rising included an experimental narrative that painted a picture of Lucifer as a fallen angel of light and good. It’s no wonder there have been countless Christian sermons and documentaries condemning these works.
Häxan is the OG of films featuring witchcraft and the devil. Provocative and fascinating, Benjamin Christensen’s film is part documentary of the historical theories and mythologies involving creation and the universe, and part anthology film featuring multiple vignettes of witches and Satan. The reputation of the film is divided between cinephiles who find the work to be one of the great masterpieces of the silent film era and those who practically think it is a work of the devil himself.
Featuring sequences of witchcraft, demonic influence and an memorable tale of a group of nuns who pledge themselves to Satan, this film rocked audiences in early 20th century Sweden and earned an immediate reputation around the world. In 1968, the film was recut and significantly shortened to include a narration by infamous author William S. Burroughs. Since then, the Criterion Collection has released the film with as much historical information attached as possible. Häxan is without a doubt the quintessential film to see on the subject.