Walpurgis Night, also known as Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht, associated with May Day in Finland and Sweden, is a time for folk songs, bonfires, and costumes. It’s a holiday the dates back to pagan celebrations of fertility or the coming of spring. Some cultures see it as an evening when witches meet on the Brocken, the tallest peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany, where the women commune with the devil. We recently examined why witches have made a pop culture comeback, and how that links to Robert Eggers’ feminist movie The Witch. And now seems as perfect a time as ever to revisit some underrated films about witches — a watchlist to complement your witchy Walpurgisnacht festivities into the night.
The Witches’ Sabbath (1988)
A young psychiatrist falls under the spell of an institutionalized witch (Béatrice Dalle) who claims she killed a man on behalf of the devil.
From critic Zev Toledano:
Italian arthouse erotic movie about the seductive power of women as exemplified by a seemingly insane, temptress woman (Dalle) in an asylum who claims to be a 300 year old witch in search of a special man. The young married doctor drowns in over his head and hallucinates medieval fantasies along with her, his world transforming into scenes of wild Sabbath orgies of passion and strange unbridled games with a mass of wildcat witches, scenes of inquisition and torture, testing Maddalena for witchcraft with strange procedures, and other rituals to treat or kill the witch, all run by men afraid of her power. Well directed and full of wild, energetic performances.
The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973)
“Vampires need blood uncontaminated by human semen.” The Reincarnation of Isabel is Euro horror sleaze at its finest.
Ultimately, what we’re faced with is yet another Italian gothic horror extravaganza about the infringement on the present by the blood-spattered past. In this, as well as in its narrative confusion between witchcraft and vampirism, Polselli’s film hearkens back to Mario Bava’s vastly superior Black Sunday, which singlehandedly established the template for this sort of genre fare. Polselli’s contribution, if indeed it can be called that, consists in his resolutely overblown visual anti-style, trendy early-‘70s trappings, and unhesitating embrace of gratuitously ubiquitous nudity. If this sounds like your sanguineous cup of tea, then, by all means, take the man’s advice: Don’t try to understand it. Just let the spectacle wash over you.
Sex of the Witch (1973)
A witch knows the wealthy Hilton family’s dark secrets.
The cast is populated by familiar B-movie names of the period, including Donal O’Brien as the inspector and Gianni Dei, Frank Garofalo and Camille Keaton as secretary, servant and nipote respectively. Daniele Patucchi provides a reasonable effective, insistent harpsichord based score, with one repeated doleful progressions coincidentally slightly remiscent of Morricone’s work on The Stendhal Syndrome. The cinematography, production design and costumes are bright and colourful in that 70s way, further adding to the lurid comic-book feel.
The Witch (1952)
The body of a centuries-old witch is unearthed. A nude young woman soon appears, set upon seducing the men in a Finnish village.
From Bloody Pit of Horror:
The Witch isn’t just limited to sexual dialogue either. Lead actress Mane isn’t one bit shy showing off what God gave her in numerous sequences seducing men, dancing with a sheer shawl or cavorting around outside completely naked, which certainly wasn’t something commonly filmed in most other countries in the early 50s. These scenes made the film somewhat scandalous in its day. It also comes at no surprise that when this made it stateside, it was an “adult’s only” release only shown in sleaze pits on the exploitation circuit. Dan Sonney’s company Sonney Amusements – who also released such films as Striptease Girl and A Virgin in Hollywood – were the first to bite, giving this a U.S. theatrical release in 1954. Joseph Brenner Associates (The Bellboy and the Playgirls) gave it a whirl in 1957, too. One American ad promised audiences “Starling fantasy in naked reality!” Back in Finland, however, this was a film taken rather seriously and it won several major awards there. The locations, art direction, photography, acting, dialogue and atmosphere (lots of wind and fog) are all vastly superior to most of the no-budget amateur soft-core trash passing for erotica in American at the same time.
Poison for the Fairies (1984)
An adolescent girl obsessed with black magic and all things evil convinces a classmate that she’s a witch. Their friendship quickly devolves into series of violent and manipulative games.
What makes Poison for the Fairies all the more effective is that it is shot entirely from the children’s point of view. The grown-ups appear infrequently, and when they do, they are generally shot from a child’s-eye level. It’s not quite to the point of the Peanuts-style wah-wah trombone, but it’s close… we see a lot of the grown-ups’ legs and backs — quite a bit of their backs, in fact — but very rarely do we see their faces. On those few occasions when we do look the adults in the eye, it comes as something of a shock. This child’s-eye perspective extends as well to the story itself. We don’t experience the plot as adults watching from a comfortable distance. Everything we see, we see exactly as the children do.
Virgin Witch (1972)
Models get more than they bargained for when they become prisoners at a country estate, lured there to become virgin sacrifices for a coven of witches.
From DVD Talk:
Made to cash in on the occult craze that was running rampant through the horror movies of the 1970s, The Virgin Witch is no masterpiece but it definitely entertains. While it’s easy enough to figure out where this one is heading (seriously, they head for a place called Wytchworld – what did they expect would happen?) very early on in the proceedings (pretty much from the time that Sybil has Christine disrobe for her in her office!) the film is still a fun ride thanks to a few interesting characters and a copious amount of nudity courtesy of the real life Michelle sisters. Director Ray Austin, who has done most of his work in television on such shows as The Saint, Space: 1999 and Magnum P.I.! uses every opportunity that Klaus Vogel’s story allows to get the girls disrobed and the movie is all the better for it – they’re both particularly easy on the eyes and quite beautiful in the classic sense with a very natural sex appeal about them. The film takes pretty much any opportunity it can to have the actresses shed their clothing – from the model shoots in which tops and pants come off to the ritualistic elements that become more important in the later part of the movie. The nudity may not always further the plot but it certainly does fulfill the requisite skin quotient that you’d expect from a film like this.
Based on a 17th-century novel about the witch trials in Northern Moravia.
The Witches’ Hammer (also known as Witchhhammer) takes its title from the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous guidebook for witch-hunters, and takes its story from true events in the Habsburg Empire nearly contemporaneous with the Salem witch craze. The trouble begins when an old woman is caught stealing a consecrated host during Communion — she takes it in her mouth without swallowing. Chided by church authorities, she admits that she intended to give it to a neighbor woman to feed to her cow, which had grown dry. The power of the host should restore the flow of milk, after all, and in return the crone would get a quart of peas. In the eyes of the authorities, superstitions like these are sinful, but where there’s smoke there may be hellfire.
Baba Yaga (1973)
Adapted from a Guido Crepax comic series (fumetti, as the Italians would say), star Carroll Baker plays a ghostly witch who seduces a female photographer into becoming another one of her erotic slaves.
From critic Matt Serafini:
Baba Yaga is something of an anomaly in the canon of Italian horror/exploitation. Based on the work of graphic artist Guido Crepax, it’s an amalgamation of tawdry Euro horror thrills and psychedelic hippie culture. We’re never really sure when reality ends and fantasy begins, and that’s sort of the point. There’s a sleazy, soft core charm to much of the proceedings even if it never quite measures up in a way that’s particularly meaningful or memorable. But hey, it’s sort of a curiosity piece for Euro fans, and besides, Baba Yaga is pretty fun to say, right?
La strega in amore (1966)
A pervy historian uncovers supernatural forces at a castle where he has set out to catalog a widow’s collection of her husband’s erotic literature.
There are few witches as beautiful and beguiling as Rosanna Schiaffino or as sinister and threatening as Sarah Ferrati in Damiano Damiani’s The Witch (or more correctly, The Witch in Love) aka La strega in amore (1966). In this leisurely paced Italian horror film based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes, Rosanna Schiaffino plays Aura, the daughter of an aging widower (Sarah Ferrati). The two women live alone together in a crumbling old house in the heart of Rome and lure unsuspecting men to their doom with the promise of passion and unimaginable pleasures. After a curious historian named Sergio (Richard Johnson) answers an ad in a newspaper requesting someone to “catalogue manuscripts in a private library” he finds himself face to face with these two mysterious women. Their library is in disarray and they need someone to transcribe the private erotic journals of the long dead master of the house. But their dusty, rat infested, library has been neglected for a very long time and Sergio isn’t the only historian who has tried to put it in order. Before he arrived another man (Gian Maria Volonté) was hired to do the job but it’s not easy to work when the lovely Aura and her domineering mother keep distracting you. Poor Sergio soon finds himself forgetting his duties as well and becoming entangled in the deadly web of secrets and lies weaved by the two women who have entrapped him.
Forbidden love between a witchfinder general and the village witch who has sworn to kill him. The film is written, directed, and stars Spanish horror cinema icon Paul Naschy, who is best known for his portrayal of classic monster figures like the Wolfman.
Paul Naschy’s take on witch-hunting, and the period of the Inquisition that gave witch-hunters their greatest resources and rationale, is different, however. With his sympathies for villains made evident by the films he has scripted and starred in, Naschy makes his witch-hunting inquisitor, Bernard de Fossey, a more complex figure. Indeed, Naschy’s inquisitor emerges a sympathetic soul toward the end of the film, a victim of love and the machinations of a woman, a person of stubborn dedication unimpressed by feminine charms except for the one special woman who vanquishes his will and subverts his duty.