Of all the great monsters of the imagination (demons, werewolves, vampires, zombies, mummies, etc) in the cinema witches have traditionally gotten the short end of the broomstick. They ought to be uncanny and every bit as terrifying as any other nightmare creature in the movies, but they almost never are. Interestingly the witches in The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves are quite effective, at least when we’re young (those of us who aren’t total insensitive dolts manage to hang on to that childlike feeling of terror when we watch the films in later years).
But apart from those two most screen witches are campy, silly, and impotent if even that. I had high hopes for American Horror Story: Coven, for example. It had its moments I guess, but, nah, most of it was about on this level:
I recently encountered what may be the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A silent Danish/Swedish co-production from 1922, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (by Benjamin Christensen) purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.