In Nicolas Cage's new film 'Season of the Witch,' in which he plays a 14th-century knight who must transport a suspected witch to a monastery, the witch actually has supernatural powers. (Just not enough to escape, apparently.)
That's a twist on most movie witch hunts, where, true to history, most of the accused witches were ordinary women who were entirely innocent of consorting with the devil, ruining their neighbors' crops, bewitching men with sinful thoughts or whatever else their accusers dreamed up.
Men and women being tortured and subjected to cruel trials doesn't just make for nail-biting cinema, it makes for some real-life scathing commentary whenever modern-day politicians dive back into the Dark Ages. Follow us, then, as we get a little Medieval.
1. Haxan, Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)
Still one of the most bizarre films ever made, this silent Danish "documentary" also features an extended sequence of harrowing witch trials. In the third segment (which begins at 34 minutes in), a woman accuses an old beggar woman of bewitching her husband. Old Maria is tortured until she "confesses" to having several children with the devil. The young wife is herself accused when a monk begins fantasizing about her. Her tears, by the monks' reasoning, should prove her innocence, since witches cannot cry, but the head monk knows better. "Do you not know that witches smear themselves with spittle so that we might believe it to be tears?" he tells a soft-hearted fellow monk.
2. Day of Wrath (1943)
Danish director Carl Dreyer (whose silent classics include 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' and 'Vampyr') filmed this chilling tale of persecution and oppression during the Nazi occupation of Denmark (much as Arthur Miller's play, 'The Crucible' would later capture the hysteria of the McCarthy era.) This film is based on an actual Norwegian case, but set in a Danish village in 1623 and follows a pastor's wife who falls under suspicion when she tries to save an older woman condemned as a witch. The entire film is currently available on Youtube.
3. Ivanhoe (1952)
Since this tale of knights and damsels in distress is from MGM and stars the lovely Elizabeth Taylor as the accused witch, no one roughs her up much, fortunately. As a Jew, she's an unfortunate target for the villainous Prince John, who sentences her to be burned at the stake. Valiant Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) wagers his life in a jousting match with the deadly Knight Templar (George Sanders) who also loves her. And it's all in thrilling Technicolor! See a clip where Sanders menaces Elizabeth Taylor at the TCM website.
4. Witchfinder General (1968)
One of Vincent Price's lesser-known horror roles is as Matthew Hopkins, the power-mad lawyer who goes from town to town sniffing out witches in 1645 England and getting handsomely paid for every witch he finds. He's accompanied by his own personal torturer, who's an expert at extracting confessions. (A typical session -- in the video below -- involves "looking for the devil's marks," which translates into "stabbing the victim until a spot that doesn't bleed is found.") Hopkins' powers also means fair maidens will bed him in hopes of receiving mercy. After a woman drowns during a dunking test, he smiles over her body and proclaims, "She was innocent."
5. The Devils (1971)
This adaptation of Aldous Huxley's 'The Devils of Loudon,' is one of Ken Russell's trippiest, most out-there films, even when compared to such cinematic freakouts as 'Tommy,' and 'Altered States.' Oliver Reed stars as Father Grandier, whose defiance to Cardinal Richelieu (who was also trying to bring down the Musketeers), makes him a target for a witch hunt. Vanessa Redgrave plays a hunchbacked nun whose lurid fantasies about the Father are taken as proof of his sorcery by the inquisitor sent to judge him. Watch a clip of Redgrave's "confession" scene.
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Finally, the absurdity of witch trials plays out as comedy, not horror. In one of the most celebrated sequences of this classic, several peasants arrive -- by very convoluted reasoning -- at the realization that a pretty young woman is, therefore, "A witch!" She's played by Connie Booth, John Cleese's wife at the time, who went on to suffer more foolishness in his '70s TV series 'Fawlty Towers.'
7. The Crucible (1996)
Arthur Miller's still-scorching play about the Salem witch trials stars Daniel Day-Lewis as John Procter, one of the few men found to be guilty of witchcraft. He's brought down by his affair with young Abigail (Winona Ryder), who is one of the town's main accusers. She'd rather have his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) be hung instead of him, but once the frenzy of a witch hunt has begun, she has no control over the outcome.