October 12 is the birthday of His Unholiness Aleister Crowley. I don’t know that I “celebrate” the date; let us rather say that I “note” it or “mark” it with this post on that great horror movie subgenre: Satanism and Witchcraft Films of the 1960s and 70s. It was a major phenomenon for quite a stretch, with a fairly discrete, beginning, middle and end. I grew up watching these movies on TV, so I feel a special connection to it. When I was a tween I acquired a used copy of Doreen Vallente’s An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present and, man, it fired my imagination! I spent countless hours poring over that book; it became quite dog-eared.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to answer the question, “Why? Why then?” I do observe a few things about it. The genesis of the subgenre seems to be England, which actually has a Pagan history. And it also seems to flourish in tandem with the counterculture and the sexual revolution. There seems to be a fascination with, and yet a fear of, awakening ancient pre-Christian practices, as though greater freedom would necessarily lead to hedonism, anarchy, and barbarism. Also not irrelevant, I think, was the advent of the U.N. and post-colonialism, as well as the American Civil Rights Movement, both of which brought about growing awareness of African culture, including its native religions, adding an element of racism.
Like so much in cultural history, I’m not sure if there is ultimately an answer to the question “Why?” other than it was time for it. I would, however, like to point out one notable precursor, stunningly prescient and ahead of its time.
Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943) has it all: the connection to bohemianism (in this case in Greenwich Village), a secret Coven of 13, an inference that female empowerment is somehow sinister, the fascination with Gothic aesthetics, plus mind control, human sacrifice, and more. And this two decades before the genre hit its stride. Even Jean Brooks’ haircut seems ahead of its time.
Some might be tempted to include 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle here as well, but that film’s entirely too lighthearted for inclusion here. It’s the right milieu, but a romantic comedy. The genre we are talking about is serious — deadly serious.
We hereby dedicate this post to Anna Biller, whose The Love Witch was my favorite film of 2016. In her enthusiasm for this genre, we consider her a kindred spirit.
Horror Hotel; or The City of the Dead (1960)
A British film, though set in America. A college girl (Venetia Stevenson) is interested in witchcraft and her adviser (Christopher Lee) sends her to an inn in a New England town where she is essentially set up to be sacrificed on Candlemass Eve. Eventually her boyfriend, brother and a concerned new friend collaborate to find out what happened to her and learn that the entire town is made up of witches (actually the witches are all 400 years old –the human sacrifices keep them immortal). All the other local towns avoid this one. In the end the heroes foil the witches by getting them onto consecrated ground in the graveyard and flashing crosses at them, which causes them to burn with the fires of hell. One of the things I found effective about this film was its claustrophobia. Most of the exteriors are done on sound stages, and it has a small cast. It’s unreal, like a dream or a bit of oral storytelling.
The Devil’s Hand (1962)
A great one! Robert Alda begins having these sexy dreams about a woman (Linda Christian) beguiling and tempting him to join her. The dreams lead him to a doll shop, and then a voodoo cult, which he is drawn into and joins. His girlfriend (Ariadna Welter) struggles to break its hold on him. Alda, who is always absurdly subdued in the best of times, is appropriately cast here as a man walking around in a stupor.
Night of the Eagle, a.k.a. Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)
A rationalist British college professor (Peter Wyngarde) struggles with his wife (Janet Blair), whom he discovers is practicing a form of African conjure magic which she picked up in Jamaica. When he destroys her magical trinkets, their luck turns bad. An enjoyable picture: sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with voodoo. An again, it’s all about a husband asserting control over a wife, telling her she’s crazy. An eloquent document of its times.
A young couple from a pair of feuding families acquire the ancient estate which their ancestors fought over. During the renovations, workmen free a bunch of immortal witches from their graves. The witches begin to draw the living into their number, until the spell is broken and all is burnt to the ground. Lon Chaney Jr. plays one of the creepy relatives.
The Witches a.k.a The Devil’s Own (1966)
A so-so Hammer film has Joan Fontaine as a glamorous school teacher in a small English village…where she encounters a secret cabal of witches, dredging up her own traumatic encounter with African witches during her time as a missionary.
Eye of the Devil (1966)
David Niven plays a wealthy owner of a French vineyard that’s been in his family since Medieval times. His wife Deborah Kerr learns that he (quite willingly) is to be sacrificed by the village anti-Christians for the good of the crops. Kerr vainly tries to prevent the sacrifice right up until the last second, to no avail. And the twist is that her young son has already been convinced to take part in this family ritual when his time comes. Sharon Tate and David Hemmings are great as a creepy brother and sister; Hemmings is the village archer whose job it is to kill Niven. This was Tate’s first good role in a feature film; her voice was dubbed. Kerr’s part was originally to be played by Kim Novak, but Novak was injured after only a few days of shooting and had to be replaced. Donald Pleasance is the village priest. The whole thing was shot on location in Chateau d’Hauteford, France. Quite an interesting and original little movie.
The Devil Rides Out a.k.a. The Devil’s Bride (1968)
A rare Hammer film in which Christopher Lee is not the villain but the concerned friend of a young aristocrat who has fallen in with a bad crowd (Satanists, don’t you know) who summon demons from hell. Lee leads a small group of heroes to rescue the girl whom the demon plans to take for his own and send the unholy ones back to Hell. For added interest it is set in the 1920s. It is based on the 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. I found this one most enjoyable!
The Witchfinder General a.k.a The Conqueror Worm (1968)
Not within the genre per se, but closely related. This film flips the formula; the villain is the obsessive tyrant (Vincent Price) who goes around torturing and killing accused witches. It’s based on the historical figure Matthew Hopkins, whose reign of terror across the English countryside was in the 17th century.
The Crimson Cult a.k.a The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
The by now usual formula with many of the by now usual cast, in an AIP-Hammer team-up. Mark Eden is an antiques dealers who comes to the home of Christopher Lee seeking his missing brother. Boris Karloff, in one of his last roles as a Van Helsing like figure out to break Lee’s Satanic cult. Hammer horror queen Barbara Steele plays a 300 year old resurrected beauty. Based on an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Unlike all the previous movies of the genre, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was a major studio production and a box office blockbuster — the movie of the year. If it had been produced in the manner originally intended by William Castle it undoubtedly would have been much more like all the previous films we have described. But an infusion of money and supervision by Paramount Pictures translated into a much more mainstream and effective picture. Interestingly it still follows the established elements. Husband John Cassavetes controls his wife Mia Farrow to a suffocating and frightening degree. It turns out he has sold her womb to a coven of elderly U.W.S. neighbors (Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer, Patsy Kelly etc) who use it to incubate the offspring of their dark lord Satan. Maurice Evans plays a friend who fills Rosemary’s head with alarming worries which turn out to be the truth. Charles Grodin is also in the film in one of his earliest roles. There was also a much less effective made for tv sequel Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976).
The Dunwich Horror (1970)
A modernized adaptation of the Lovecraft tale, produced by Roger Corman and AIP with a fairly stellar cast: Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, Sam Jaffee, Ed Begley, Talia Shire and Barboura Morris. I can’t imagine Corman wasn’t inspired by the success of Rosemary’s Baby. It ends with the impregnation of Dee by the forces of darkness, enabled by the magical words contained in the Necronomicon. Stockwell is particularly effective as a mustached, jewelry loving Satanic 70s dude.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
A scary one! Jacqueline Bisset is the wife of music journalist Alan Alda, whose soul is replaced by dying Satanic pianist Curt Jurgens, aided and abetted by his daughter Barbara Parkins. The art direction in this one is great; the settings in the gloomy old mansion are highly memorable. Drink red wine from silver goblets much?
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
It’s the early 18th century. A young man is plowing his field when he hits the corpse of a bizarre, semi-human creature. Shortly thereafter all of the town’s young people (and some of the old ones) wind up worshiping the beast, with some of them turning into hairy creatures themselves, with claws. This one, being of its times, contains quite a bit of nudity, and a particularly disturbing rape of a young girl.
The Devils (1971)
A notorious film in its day, based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, about real life 17th century priest Urbain Grandier, who was executed for witchcraft. Oliver Reed plays Grandier. Vanessa Redgrave plays a hunchbacked, sexually starved nun who is obsessed with him and brings about his downfall. The film was originally rated X due to its graphic sexual and violent content and its many blasphemies. The film has never been released on home video in its original, uncut version. This is a movie that dares to ask the question: “What’s worse? The sacrilege? Or the cruelty of the Inquisitors?” It represents the rare case where I’ll admit to the former outrages (nuns having sex with a statue of Jesus, and masturbating with the femur bone of a dead priest) being pretty darned offensive. Not that I’m for censoring it, but I can understand why many people would be very upset.
Dracula A.D. 1972
In certain respects, one might say all the Dracula films belong here. By some lights the vampire is a demonic entity of some sort. Dracula A.D. 1972 one rates inclusion here because in this scenario Dracula (Christopher Lee) is resurrected on a lark by a bunch of swinging, mod young Londoners who dabble in the occult arts. The situation is repeated in its sequel The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).
Necromancy a.k.a. The Witching (1972)
Surprising bid for prestige (apparently) by Burt I. Gordon, best known for camp like Attack of the Puppet People and Food of the Gods. This film is scarcely less schlocky, but shot with a good deal more self-consciousness than his usual fare, in an apparent attempt to get younger audiences. It wears its debt to Rosemary’s Baby on its sleeve. Michael Ontkean (later of Twin Peaks) convinces his wife Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) who has just had a stillborn child to move with him to a strange gated company town called “Lillith”, which is ruled over by a Satanic cult leader played by Orson Welles. Franklin was “born with a veil”, supposedly conferring powers, and he wants her to resurrect his dead son, though the process must cost her her own life. A very entertaining picture; we suspect it was visually influential on The Love Witch.
Something Evil (1972)
Very early Steven Spielberg TV movie follow up to Duel. A couple (Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis) and their son (Johnny Whitaker) move to a farm house in Bucks County and tamper with with Pennsylvania Dutch witch pentacles, with vaguely horrific results.
The Wicker Man (1973)
A classic, and one of the last of the old school Pagan horror movies. A British police detective goes to an island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He gradually learns that all the inhabitants have reverted to pre-Christian Celtic paganism, and they indulge in human sacrifice. Christopher Lee gets a flashy turn as the cult leader. The film was later remade (rather notoriously) by Neal Labute in 2006.
The Devil’s Daughter (1973)
A priceless example of the genre, not a hair out of place. If it seems a tad “self aware” it may be because it was scripted by Colin Higgins, clever scribe behind such dark comedies as Harold and Maude, Foul Play and 9 to 5. Fun and fast moving (faster moving than many films in this genre at any rate), it hits every beat and detail you want to have in such a movie — right between the eyes. Made as an ABC TV movie, it probably didn’t play as camp or comedy in its own time, but now it can be savored for those qualities. The fact that is was so on the nose may be an early indication that the genre had jumped the shark. Belinda Montgomery (best remembered as the mom in The Wonder Years) attends her mother’s funeral, and meets up with Shelley Winters at her scene chewing best as one “Lillith”, who draws her into an all-star cult of character actors that includes Abe Vigoda, Lucille Benson and Thelma Carpenter. The scene where the assembled freak her out by chanting “Hail, Diane, Princess of Darkness” alone is worth the price of admission Joseph Cotten plays an old judge who may be her salvation; Robert Foxworthy, the new boyfriend who may also be. Several other recognizable faces in the cast Diane Ladd plays Montgomery’s mother; Martha Scott plays Foxworthy’s. And kindly old Ian Wolfe plays a trusted priest.
Satan’s School for Girls (1973)
Aaron Spelling produced this ABC tv movie, which features a supporting turn by Kate Jackson, who starred in his shows The Rookies and Charlie’s Angels. Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) plays a girl whose sister has fled her college and appears to have hung herself. Determined to find out what drove her sister to this, she enrolls at the school — the Salem Academy for Women (!) to investigate, and gradually gets to the bottom of the situation (essentially that the faculty and students all belong to a Satanic cult). Naturally the climax is that the entire school and everyone in it burns up in a fire — except the mysterious professor who is behind it all.
The Initiation of Sarah (1978)
This late entry into the genre is a kind of hybrid, mixing the Satanic cult idea, with a telekinesis premise probably inspired by Stephen King’s Carrie. It concerns a college girl (Kay Lenz) with psychic abilities whose sister (Morgan Brittany) joins a mysterious sorority whose house mother is none other than Shelley Winters. Not only are the other girls cruel (one of them is played by Morgan Fairchild), but in the end we learn they practice human sacrifice!
Now: I was tempted to include The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Sentinel (1977) in this post, but quickly realized that they are working off a completely different mythos: Roman Catholicism and the Black Mass. They constitute another subgenre, and we shall perhaps treat of it on it on another occasion.
I will no doubt add to this post over time as I think of other films; I know, for example, that there must be made made for tv movies I have left out. We shall add them as they occur to us. As always, your input is not sought. There is no fun in that for me whatsoever!