31 Days of Witch Movies: #20 Harry Potter and the 8 Movies

This film review showcase wouldn’t seem complete if I didn’t mention Harry Potter. The books and movies are a megalithic entertainment commodity that is now entrenched in our American culture. Harry Potter is like Mickey Mouse, Charlie Brown, and the Beave!

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But how do I review Harry Potter?  Which movie do I review? What more is there to say that hasn’t been said, considered or debated? Maybe the best approach is to toss out the movie review idea completely and talk my visit to ”Harry Potter land” (a.k.a. Universal Studios)?

Two words:  Butter Beer!

In all seriousness, the Harry Potter series of films is an example of very well-constructed and balanced story telling. Filmmakers saddled themselves with the daunting job of converting a series of successful novels into a series of successful movies. That is not easy. The two art forms work entirely differently and very often a movie adaptations of books fall flat. (Dune 1984Mists of Avalon 2001.)  There time and space limits of cinema do not exist in the literature.

Die-hard Harry Potter book fans may have been disappointed at times.  But this is the nature of adaptation.  Elements must be omitted to make a movie work.  And the Harry Potter movies worked. .

Harry Potter Land
Harry Potter Land

 

How did the Potter filmmakers accomplish this task? The films are story-driven – not special effects, not music, not character and not philosophy. These are stories and every other filmic element is a slave to telling that story within the confines of the film medium.  When asked about the darkness of the last films, David Heyman says “We did what’s right by the story.”  This can be applied to all of the film choices made. This is why Harry Potter works.

What I find interesting is the religious-based reaction to the books and films. Since the books grew in popularity, the Christian right has contended Rowling’s stories are evil and promote Satan. In some cases, the stories are linked to the growth in Wicca and an interest in Witchcraft.  In my world view, these are two separate concerns that need addressing.

The first argument is purely based on Rowling’s use of witchcraft and the surrounding age-old tired mythology. Nothing more. If someone feels that Rowling’s books and movies promote evil, then my response would simply be: “Don’t read them. Don’t watch them.”

Of course, I disagree.

The second argument is more complicated. Here is where Wiccan practitioners and other Pagans need to be careful. While it is fun to pretend that the World of Harry Potter is synonymous with the real Wiccan world, it isn’t. Rowling’s Wizarding World is fantasy. Yes, it is wonderful to see positive and non-stereotypical constructions of witches (Hermione and Professor MacGonagall, in particular) and to imagine a world centered around magical practice.  However, distinctions need to be made and maintained between a Wiccan reality and the Harry Potter fantasy.

As many Christian groups claim, people may in fact seek out Wiccans in order to “become a witch” assuming there is a sorting hat on every coven shelf.  Is that a problem?  Yes and no. Increased interest brings increase awareness. That is good. However what happens when the sorting hat isn’t found?  Disillusionment? The creation of covens that mirror Harry Potter and are devoid of spirituality?  Is that a problem?

As Wiccan practitioners, we can also fall into a trap of feeding this confusion by publicly using Potter language in jest which can open us up to mockery.  I have heard comments like, “She thinks she’s a “real” witch” followed by patronizing giggles. The implied tone is that the said woman is “one witch short of a full coven” so to speak.

Confession: We have four Harry Potter wands in our house – all purchased at Harry Potter land. While visiting I periodically found myself speaking in an awful British accent.  “Remember the wand chooses the witch.”

What I present here is a tiny example of a greater sociological issue that concerns the “cross-contamination” of reality and fantasy.  When is it harmful?  When is it beneficial?  I’ll leave you with those questions to consider as you enjoy your coffee and crumpets.

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Courtesy of Flickr’s Colin ZHU

Overall, the Harry Potter movies are undoubtedly an amazing accomplishment in the entertainment industry. All eight are entertaining on many levels.  In addition, the films offer a new presentation of witchcraft and witches – one that contains depth and moral ambiguity. That is very refreshing.

One last trip back to Harry Potter Land: The Hogwarts ride is hands-down the best ride that I’ve ever been on.  It was is worth the 1.5 hour wait.  Here’s one warning. You will wait for over 2 hours if you don’t get to the park as it opens and race at top-speed from the front entrance directly to the ride. You may have to push over a few people and hurdle baby carriages to accomplish this task. 

Day #1: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Day #2: Haxan
Day #3: The Princess and the Frog
Day #4: City of the Dead
Day #5: Beautiful Creatures
Day #6: The Witches
Day #7: Wicked
Day #8: Bell Book & Candle
Day #9: American Horror Story: Coven
Day #10: Black Death (Guest Reviewer:  John W. Morehead)
Day #11: Witches of East End
Day #12: Nightmare Before Christmas
Day #13: Scooby Doo: The Witch’s Ghost
Day #14: Hocus Pocus
Day #15: The Wiz
Day #16: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Day #17: Wicker Man (Guest Reviewer: Link)
Day #18: The Witches of Eastwick
Day #19: Bedknobs and Broomsticks

 

 

 

 

 

31 Days of Witch Movies: #11 The Witches of East End

I’m now about three days behind. My busy days make it difficult to type out a review every night.  ”Life’s full of tough choices isn’t it?”  To quote a very well-known movie witch.

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Stepping away from feature films, I’m going to offer my reading of Lifetime’s new show The Witches of East End.  The one-hour drama airs every Sunday at 10 am and tells the saga of the Beauchamp family of female witches. Presumably over the season these women will face magical adversaries through which they will unleash a cauldron full of stories. In the first two episodes, mother Joanna Beauchamp is forced to tell to her two grown daughters about their origins, their powers and, oh by the way, an ancient enemy has returned to kill them all.

In the Witches of East End, the witches themselves are creatures – not human. As Joanna says, there are just enough witches in the world to “cause a problem.”  Each witch is different and can have a variety of different innate magical powers. Spells seem to require Latin chants, pentacles and candles. The Beauchamp witches like to bury things in cemeteries but they don’t kill people…. anymore.  Finally they are cursed but we don’t yet know why or by whom.

As is common in modern Witch movies, the female is witch is sexy, independent and mature. Some of the shots of Freya seemed more inspired by Victoria’s Secret rather than a novel about witches. I will be curious to see if the narrative will continue pairing sexuality with the embracing of one’s Craft power. Mother Joanna Beauchamp and daughter Ingrid, both of whom are reticent or frightened to perform Witchcraft, are conservatively dressed and express very little sexuality.  Aunt Wendy who is in full control of her power is naked in half of her scenes. When she does dress, Wendy wants to wear clothes that don’t make her look like an “an old maid.” Daughter Freya, also aware of and willing to embrace magic, is the most sexually expressive.

The Beauchamp women’s innate magic is a called “a gift” and can be used for good or bad. Every spell has a consequence because, as Wendy Beauchamp says, “balance must be restored.”  I like this expression of a self-checking ethical code. It is closer to Pagan theology than anything we’ve seen previously.

While the opening had a distinct horror element, the show really felt more like TV than film. There was nothing technically special in its cinematography. It was competent, comfortable film making that told a sold story.  After watching both two episodes, I felt like Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been resurrected by one of Ingrid’s spells. Will another show have to die?

Despite some interesting story telling and solid acting, the witchcraft themes were quite “campy” such as the hidden dusty box, the floating pentacles, the secret codes, the old grimoire and the Latin chants. The evil shifter’s face even bore a striking resemblance to an angry Vampire. I was half waiting for Spike to step onto the screen.

With that said I did love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Like Buffy, this show contains some clever humor diced into the stabbings and murder attempts. Sassy Aunt Wendy counter-balances her serious sister, Joanna, by throwing out quips now and again. At one point Wendy references the film Fight Club (1999) and says, “The First Rule of Witch Club: You don’t talk about Witch Club.”

I didn’t mind this show for its campy displays of witchcraft.  I might even watch episode three. The Witches of East End is what I would call “guilty pleasure” TV watching. Where American Horror Story: Coven is disturbing in all ways – technically, thematically and narratively, this show is just candy. It is good campy fantasy witch television. I am reserving any further comments until I see how the Beauchamp story unfolds.

31 Days of Witch Movies

Day #1: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Day #2: Haxan
Day #3: The Princess and the Frog
Day #4: City of the Dead
Day #5: Beautiful Creatures
Day #6: The Witches
Day #7: Wicked
Day #8: Bell Book & Candle
Day #9: American Horror Story: Coven
Day #10: Black Death (Guest Reviewer:  John W. Morehead)

 

 

 

31 Days of Witch Movies: #10 Black Death

[I'm thrilled to have John W. Morehead of Theofantastique.com participate in this film festival: 31 Days of Witch Movies.  Like myself, John is fascinated with movies and the visual storytelling process. On his website, you can read more about his life-long interest in the myth, meaning and theology behind the fantastic in film. Here is his review of the UK Film: Black Death]

2011 saw the release of two notable films featuring Witches, or at least Witch motifs. Both of them involved a medieval setting, and the stories involved Witchcraft in connection with the Black Plague. But these films were very different from one another. The first was Season of the Witch starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman. It debuted to mixed reviews, and this take on Witchcraft added to what is for many a growing list of Cage’s cinematic flops.

The second film was Black Death starring Sean Bean. Although it has an official release date in 2010, it did not reach US theaters until 2011, and even this was limited. This is a tragedy in that the film is a satisfying piece of medieval horror, reminiscent of past efforts such as Witchfinder General (1968), as well as The Wicker Man (1973). In addition, it takes the viewer to a place that is unexpected in its conclusion as it moves beyond more familiar treatments of Witchcraft in horror. For me, this was the most interesting facet of the film.

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Black Death takes place in England during the time of the first outbreak of the Black Plague. It tells the story of Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a monk who is conflicted between his love for the church that he serves, and a young woman whom he desires to keep safe from the spreading disease. He volunteers to go on a mission for the church to investigate rumors of a village that the plague has not touched due to Witchcraft. This journey is spearheaded by a warrior, Ulrich, and his small band of fighting men, armed with special skills in combat and torture that serve the church in its desires to find and punish heretics. Church leaders believe that the plague is a judgment from God, and that the village has made a pact with satanic forces to avoid divine justice. Ulrich and his men will use Osmund as a guide to find the heretic leader, and return this person for judgment by the church.

This film stands out in that it does something very different in its portrayal of Witchcraft and also the history of conflict between Paganism and Christianity. Rather than drawing upon familiar horror Witch tropes, the film explores the ways in which religion is used to manipulate others by way of the historic conflict between Paganism and Christianity. But even the way in which this is done is different. SPOILER ALERT: Osmund comes to discover that the leader of the village, Langiva (Carice van Houten), whom they have been led to believe is a Witch with the power to raise the dead as well as keep the plague at bay, is in fact nothing but a charlatan, deceiving the villagers into believing that she has supernatural powers. No evil, satanic Witch is preventing the plague from decimating the village. Instead, the disease has yet to make its way there by natural processes, and instead, religious deception rises to the surface of this film’s narrative.

With this interesting twist Black Death avoids previous portrayals of the conflict between Christianity and Paganism and does something unique. Rather than portraying Christianity in positive fashion with Witches as heretics who deserve to be punished as was often the perspective in a culture where Christianity was more dominant, and instead of reversing this scenario in our post-Christendom culture, Black Death provides the reflective viewer with an opportunity to reassess how religion can be used to manipulate others regardless of one’s tradition or spiritual pathway.

Director Christopher Smith discussed this aspect of the film in an interview in Rue Morgue magazine #108 (Jan./Feb. 2011). During the course of the interview, Smith was asked whether the film functions as a parable for our times in respect to the battle between Christians and Pagans. He said,

I think there’s certainly a relevance between being told something is evil and finding out it’s actually the opposite. But [in regards] to Christians versus pagans, I don’t want to suggest that any one side is more right than the other, because the film is not about which religion’s right — far from it; it’s about the way that religions can be manipulated and used by bad people for their own good. And what you have is this group of soldiers that are in this clash between these two things, where they are told on the one hand to go to this village and destroy the evil there, but when they get there they find a place that seems to be the exact opposite of what they were told it would be. … It’s also a movie about the ways faith can be tested. If you are told that if you come to church you won’t die, how do you go back to church and say, “Why didn’t that work?” At the time, the Church got very scared with the question that faith is being challenged by the people. Part of what you see in the film, this idea of needing to find a demon, needing to find someone that we can pin the blame on this thing on, to go and destroy it, and then when we’ve destroyed it harmony can return again, that’s a very modern parable.

Black Death is highly recommended, not only for those who want to experience something different in Witch movies, but also for those interested in reflecting on how religion can be used to manipulate others.

31 Days of Witch Movies

Day #1: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Day #2: Haxan
Day #3: The Princess and the Frog
Day #4: City of the Dead
Day #5: Beautiful Creatures
Day #6: The Witches
Day #7: Wicked
Day #8: Bell Book & Candle
Day #9: American Horror Story: Coven

 

31 Days of Witch Movies: #9 American Horror Story Coven

I decided to look at one of the most recent representations of witchcraft and witches that American entertainment has to offer:  American Horror Story: Coven.  It premiered Wed October 9 2013 as the third season of the FX show.

2013-10-06-americanhorrorstorycovenposterseason3Based on the promo graphic alone, I wasn’t interested in watching the show. The image depicts three young, clear-complexioned women wearing hot red lipstick opening their mouths as an snake passes in and out.  What genre is this exactly?

Despite my inability to stomach most modern horror movies, I decided to watch the show anyway. American Horror Story stars some top-shelf actors like Jessica Lange, Angela Basset and Kathy Bates. Plus it’s a television show not a movie. How scary could it be?

Not scary at all.

Technically speaking the show was excellent. The visuals have all the typical horror elements such as distorted imagery, spinning cameras, odd point-of-view shots, moving cameras and tilted angles. When Zoe walks through the hospital near the end, the camera is nearly upside down. Cool! These non-traditional visuals are all meant to keep the viewer off balance and unsettled. They help create intensity and makes a film (or TV show) a whole lot creepier.

However, I still wouldn’t call this show horrifying, at least not in the teenage slasher kind of way. What is horrifying is the show’s depiction of how humans treat each other. In just one episode American Horror Story: Coven forces the viewer into the uncomfortable position of facing slavery, human torture, gang-rape, cruelty, and child abandonment. There is no room for comfort anywhere.  The characters aren’t kind to one another  - not parents to children, not peers, and not student to teacher.  Most interpersonal dynamics are held in a space of forced tolerance.

Where does Witchcraft come in? In this case, witchcraft is a portal through which the show amplifies the horror and sensationalizes its product.  When a program explores the nature of personal power, it is far more tantalizing for a character to consume someone’s life blood than steal his lunch money.

Like a good deal of witch films, this show basically asks “How far would you go to get what you want?”  ”Would you turn to witchcraft?” However, in this case the desires and the supernatural power are both in one person. The temptation is amplified. Therefore the question is more probing, more complicated and more personal.  If you had the power, would use it? How would you use? When is it ok to use it?

Interestingly, the show doesn’t juxtapose Christianity and Witchcraft. In fact it mocks the concept that Witchcraft is Satanic. The girls perform a fake ritual to the “dark father” as a joke. Later the narrative scolds Christianity for burning an innocent young girl who has the power of resurrection.

In this world Witchcraft is not inherently evil – it is the practitioner that makes the choice to be good or not. Cordelia Foxx, wearing light colored conservative attire, seems to be good. Fiona Goode is assumed to be bad. She wears all black, kills men and, oh yea, resurrects quite possibly one of TVs cruelest characters, Madame LaLaurie.  Let’s just say this woman gives King Joffrey a run for his money!

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What does this mean for real Witches?  I like the exploration of moral gray areas. However until Hollywood stops presenting the Craft in a sensationalized, literal format devoid of Pagan theology, there will be no real Witches in Hollywood.  Until Hollywood stops using Witchcraft as a way of negotiating women’s social power, there won’t be an honest depiction of Witchcraft.

But if they did, they couldn’t advertise with hot red lipstick and call the show “Bitchcraft,” could they?  (What a cleverly uncomfortable and socially offensive title.)

Over all the show was entertaining in a warped, creepy way. I hope it doesn’t get any more sensationalized or graphic and sticks to exploring the story itself. I’d also like to see a few of the characters become sympathetic, empowered witches. I’d like to see some interpersonal kindness between the women and some men survive unscathed.  Hopefully that’s in the plans.

 

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31 Days of Witch Movies: #8 Bell Book and Candle

Ring the Bell, Close the Book and Blow Out the Candle

One of Hollywood’s classics, Bell Book & Candle (1958) is part of my upcoming Wild Hunt article on Representations of Witches in Hollywood films 1951-1968.  In that series I am unable to really provide any in-depth analysis or discussion of any one film. So here’s my review of this little gem.

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Bell Book & Candle (1958) is based on John van Druten’s play of the same name. Before ever seeing the movie, I was a stage manager on a low-budget production of this play. Its poorly constructed sets, over-confident director and terrible acting made it very difficult for me to find a space that would allow me to enjoy the film.

After years in recovery, I was just able to finally watch the movie.  Fortunately, it was nothing like that old production.

Hollywood’s Bell Book & Candle is a romantic-comedy marinating heavily in 1950s melodrama. It is what we might call today:  a “chick-flick.”  Despite that derogatory term, Bell Book & Candle is a well-crafted, solid movie that screams Studio System. It has all the classic elements of that era such as big stars, a tight narrative, clean shots with simple framing and non-provocative themes.

Non-provocative? You say. What about the witchcraft? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, the cast is absolutely top-notch. The supporting roles are played by Elsa Lanchester (Queenie), Jack Lemmon (Nicky) and Ernie Kovacs (Sydney Redlitch). The main players are Kim Novak (Gil Holroyd) and Jimmy Stewart (Shepherd Henderson).  I could end the review right there and you’d have to go watch the film.

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While I won’t end the review, I will pause for a moment to pay homage to the remarkable Jimmy Stewart.  He is quite possibly the best actor of his generation and an undeniable master at generating natural reactions, facial expressions and dialogue. Stewart’s performance can stop the narrative and absolutely steal an entire scene. One of his best showings was the drunk scene in The Philadelphia Story (1940).  

Now back to Bell Book and Candle.

The film takes place in New York City where witches (and warlocks) reside among humans. Although they look like humans, they can’t cry, blush or fall in love. As Queenie says, “Love is quite impossible but hot blood is allowed.”  Hot blood? Because this film had to pass the Breen Code, all sexual references are masked or coded. When Shep and Gillian first get together, the editor cuts to a shot of the park. That is an old visual code for “makin’ whoopie.”  (nudge nudge wink wink)

As expected the morality of the film juxtaposes Witchcraft with 1950s normalcy. However the comparison is not good to evil. Bell Book and Candle is a melodrama and was marketed to women. It’s cultural purpose is the reinforcement of the social status quo. While this film genre always gave women the opportunity to briefly escape their monotonous lives, it always returned them to the safety of traditional gender roles.

In Bell Book and Candle, witchcraft is used as the imaginary escape and a thematic symbol for everything the housewife should not be (free, sexually open, beautiful, single, powerful, non-emotional, independent, intellectual etc.)  As a witch Gillian wears seductive red and black clothing with open backs and flowing scarves.  After losing her powers, Gillian wears a conservative white dress with a yellow sash. Additionally, Gillian goes from selling artifacts, symbols of independence and intellect, to selling cut flowers and decor, symbols of domesticity.

Bell Book and Candle is really the story of one woman’s quest to leave her independent life and enter into a traditional gender role. She says she wants to be normal or like someone in a 1950s film audience. When Gillian does eventually lose her witch power, she becomes human, or as she called it “hum drum.” Therefore, in this film, humanity itself equals conformity and in the 1950s, that was a valued thing.

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Although the film doesn’t have a strong theological spin, it does use Christianity as “litmus paper.”  The witches celebrate Christmas which immediately suggests that they aren’t Satanists. This makes the family of witches sympathetic and non-threatening. During one of the opening scenes, Gillian (Novak) laments that she would sometimes like to “just spend Christmas eve at a church somewhere listening to carols instead of bongos.”  As such Christian culture defines normalcy.

Despite a distaste for the witch lifestyle, the film doesn’t punish them. The final scene is Queenie and Nicky walking away playing with with street lamps just after helping the lovers reunite.  These witches aren’t bad. They just an example of what not to do.  Kinda like an eccentric uncle that keeps showing up a family outings?  He isn’t bad – just odd.

In terms of entertainment, Bell Book and Candle is like a good candy bar – something sweet and savory.  I loved watching Jimmy Stewart and the other actors.  The story itself is very well-told. Thematically speaking it is a product of its time which may be difficult for some modern viewers to swallow. However if you can set aside the feminist fist for 102 minutes, Bell Book and Candle is worth seeing.

 

BONUS:  Gillian’s Siamese cat is called Pyewacket. According to some very limited research, that name comes from a 17th century document in which a witch hunter reports the names of an accused witch’s familiars.  One of these names was Pyewacket.

 

31 Days of Witch Movies

Day #1: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Day #2: Haxan
Day #3: The Princess and the Frog
Day #4: City of the Dead
Day #5: Beautiful Creatures
Day #6: The Witches
Day #7: Wicked