With All Hallows’ Eve on the orange-hued horizon, Indie Outlook takes a nostalgia-filled look at my most beloved seasonal monstrosity: the witch. Her maternal façade only makes her demonic nature all the more alarming, yet it’s the blatant glee she takes in her wickedness that makes her so irresistible. And seriously, who wouldn’t want to defy gravity like she does with such effortless chutzpah, soaring into the night sky with her silhouette visible against a harvest moon? Here are the top ten witches I hold nearest and dearest to my heart…
10. Winifred Sanderson in “Hocus Pocus” (1993)
Kenny Ortega’s Halloween perennial is the cinematic equivalent of junk food—cheap, disposable and packed with enough artificial sweeteners to send kiddies on a night-long sugar high. It’s not a good film, but I’ll freely admit that it was among my favorites as a young lad and it indeed has some redeeming qualities that have managed to stand the test of time: hulking Doug Jones (of “Pan’s Labyrinth” fame), cute lil’ Thora Birch and the Divine Miss M herself, Bette Midler, as Winifred, a frizzy-haired hurricane leading a hapless trio of recently resurrected witches on an evening of kid-hunting mayhem in Salem. With the eyes of Satan and the mouth of Bugs Bunny, Midler is a scream, particularly when she sings the picture’s sole showstopper, “I Put a Spell On You.”
9. Endora in “Bewitched” (1964-1972)
Agnes Moorehead didn’t get nearly enough respect during her lifetime. A member of Orson Welles’s stock company, the formidably gifted performer has often been touted as the best actress in “Citizen Kane,” despite the fact that she only has a few minutes of screen time. Her portrayal of Kane’s cold-blooded mother is frighteningly effective, providing the prelude to what would become her most beloved role: the ultimate mother-in-law from Hell in Sol Saks’s charming sitcom. Though the black-and-white episodes (featuring elastic-faced Dick York, a precursor to Jim Carrey, as Moorehead’s ever-bumbling target) are infinitely superior to the later seasons in color, Moorehead is sublime throughout. Her deadpan line readings made her witchy mama a timeless delight.
8. The Grand High Witch in “The Witches” (1990)
Few witches in film history have ever appeared to be having more fun than Angelica Huston’s German-voiced child-killer. Posing as Eva Ernst, chairwoman of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (har har), with a pasted-on face concealing her fiendishly grotesque hideousness, ingeniously designed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, Huston’s performance starts at over-the-top and takes off from there into the stratosphere of comic lunacy. Yet she’s also mesmerizing in her moments of stillness, staring daggers at an old foe from across the room or snickering at one of her victims forever trapped in a faded painting. Her screwball timing is aces, particularly when a man’s innocent question, “Did you fly in?” causes her to exclaim “VAT?!” in a fit of paranoia.
7. Queen Grimhilde in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)
My mother has always loved recounting the story of when she watched this Disney classic on TV when she was a little girl. Her multitasking eyes casually shifted between the cartoon and the picture she was drawing with her crayons. Occasionally, she’d reach over and munch on some nearby pretzels. But when the film reached its unforgettably galvanizing peak with the transformation of wicked Queen Grimhilde into a skull-faced, owl-eyed crone (both brilliantly voiced by Lucille La Verne), my mom was so petrified that she accidentally took a bite out of her crayon. Who could blame her? The swirling animation and spine-tingling score still deliver as great an impact as it did nearly 80 years ago…
6. Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2003)
Here’s the witch on my list who filled me with such venomous rage that I was repeatedly tempted to throw a 896-page hardcover book clear across my bedroom. But the book remained firmly in my grasp, even as my fingers curled in exasperation. With her passive aggressive faux sweetness (announcing her presence with a curt “Hem Hem”) barely masking the sort of wrongheaded righteousness worthy of Nurse Ratched, this abominable Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher refuses to teach young wizards the magic they need to survive, while forever halting heroic Harry in his tracks, preventing him from saving the day at all costs. Though Imelda Staunton delivered a wonderful performance in the 2007 film version, it is the Umbridge contained within J.K. Rowling’s prose that generates the deepest umbrage of all.
5. The Blair Witch in “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)
The scariest witch on this list exists solely in the minds of moviegoers. She never makes an appearance in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s game-changing found footage masterwork, but her presence is suggested in every decaying leaf, dangling twig figurine, ghostly chuckle and otherworldly bump in the night. According to the chillingly detailed mythology (heard only in fleeting snippets in the film itself), the phantom’s name was Elly Kedward, an Irish-born woman accused of practicing witchcraft in the 1700’s. After her hanging, she went on a vengeance-fueled murder spree that, if depicted in a straightforward manner, would’ve been no different from any modern “Ringu” riff. It’s the filmmakers’ richly nuanced vérité approach that causes Elly to linger forever in our worst nightmares.
4. Griselda in “Hansel and Gretel” (1987)
I’ve long sung the praises of Len Talan’s beautifully acted adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fable. It was the film that traumatized my sister and I the most during our childhood, and we couldn’t get enough of it. Perhaps we could relate to the two titular siblings as they managed to stick together even as they found themselves lost in a haunted forest chockfull of malevolent voices that seem to emerge from the creeping wind. The first act is one long build-up to the witch’s appearance, and she ends up blowing away every conceivable expectation. Cloris Leachman is flat-out sensational as the candy-wielding Griselda, a dotty granny who makes odd Freudian slips while reading bedtime stories (“the fire in the kitchen flamed up and cooked the children—er, chicken”). But when Gretel tiptoes down the basement stairs to discover the old lady’s true identity…well, let’s say it’s enough to make one choke down a boxful of crayons.
3. The Witch in “Into the Woods” (1987)
Stephen Sondheim’s marvelously witty, startlingly poignant ode to faerie tales not only remains the greatest musical I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the best musical, by far, that I had the pleasure of performing in with my high school drama troupe (I was Cinderella’s drunk father and loved every inebriated minute of it). We staged the show in the spring of 2002, and it turned out to be a timely parable for our post-9/11 world, as an unforeseen catastrophe causes the gobsmacked characters to rebuild their lives from scratch in Act II. After garnering laughs with her rapping ruthlessness in the previous act, the Witch turns out to be a voice of truth, belting out the tear-jerking tune, “Children Will Listen.” Bernadette Peters’s towering performance is immortalized on a video recording of the original Broadway production, and it’s still the one to beat (Meryl Streep will have mighty big shoes to fill in the film version due for release next December).
2. The Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Every kid has at one point encountered a stranger who might very well be a witch. It could be the cranky neighbor next door or the grim teacher who makes every class pure torture (for me, it was a substitute teacher who threatened to smack me with her yardstick). Beneath such vindictive behavior often lies tragedy, and the most influential witch in movie history is no exception. Played with extraordinary relish by former kindergarten teacher Margaret Hamilton, the witch appears at the surface to be a straightforward villain, complete with a green face, hooked nose and pointy hat. Yet in a way, she’s as much a victim as Dorothy. Reeling from the death of her sister, the Witch is determined to retrieve her late sibling’s shoes stolen by Glinda, an alleged “good witch” who makes patronizing comments like “only bad witches are ugly.” No wonder everyone from John Waters to the writers of “Wicked” have sided with Ms. Hamilton.
1. Wanda the Witch in the Harms Farm Spook House
I’m happy to say that my top witch on this list happens to be the one that I actually met in person. I used to visit her every year at the Harms Farm and Garden Center in McHenry, IL, where she stood waiting in the darkness of a lovingly hand-crafted haunted house. Consisting of a costumed mannequin with a human face impeccably superimposed onto her blank head (via a Super 8 projector with a continuous loop cartridge, much more impressively than in the video below), Wanda was a marvel to behold, particularly for imaginative children such as myself. Watching her transform from a pretty young woman into an increasingly vile witch (courtesy of “Wolf Man”-esque dissolves) was as close to magic as anything I encountered as a child. Deftly channeling the spirit of Hamilton, the uncredited actress simultaneously oozed menace and laugh-out-loud exuberance, taunting visitors with lines like, “Is this the face of a person who’d do something mean or evil?”, before letting out a bone-rattling cackle accompanied by thunder. Though the witch eventually succumbed to humidity at Harms, possible Wanda sightings in Rock Island, IL, and Franksville, WI, may indicate that her spirit lives on…
Special thanks to Theresa Harms for the info.