A Cinematic Witches’ Brew, Just in Time for Valentine’s Day

You’d think it was Halloween or something.

To commemorate the forthcoming formal release of director Robert Eggers’ Sundance Award-winning feature The Witch, SIFF is mounting a mini-festival of classic witch films. The festival begins tonight, culminating with a sneak preview screening of The Witch at the SIFF Cinema Uptown Sunday night (yup, Valentine’s Day) at 8:00 P.M.

Admission to each of the Friday and Saturday screenings is free for SIFF members, $5 for the general public. Attendees of any of the screenings on those two days receive free passes for two to the Witch screening. Eggers will be in attendance on Sunday, and given the quality of his cinematic baby (more on that later), his presence renders the screening nigh-unmissable.

The remaining four movies screen at the SIFF Film Center on the Seattle Center Campus. Each one’s good to amazing in its own right, so you can extend the unmissable tag across all three days. Here’s the straight skinny on the entire weekend of cinematic spell-casters.

Rosemary’s Baby (tonight, 6: 30 P.M.): Young marrieds Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a New York brownstone populated by a bunch of creepy old neighbors who might be creepy old witches. Roman Polanski’s 1967 classic isn’t without its rough patches: The credibility of the premise is nearly stretched to the breaking point as Farrow turns a blind eye to an absurd number of suspicious herbal shakes and crackpot explanations from her devil-worshipping doctor. Blame Ira Levin (whose novel provided the source material) for the liabilities, but credit director Polanski and the cast for transcending them all. The queasy unease generated by the mounting threats to Rosemary couldn’t feel more visceral, and Farrow’s acceleration from discomfort to flat-out paranoid terror is harrowingly genuine. Major props to the cast of old-timers, especially Ruth Gordon, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Farrow’s Brooklyn-drawling, gaudily made-up next-door neighbor.

The Craft (tonight, 9:30 P.M.): Subtlety holds no place in the universe of The Craft, a 1996 horror opus about a trio of teenage witches who adopt a newbie (Robin Tunney) into their fold. It’s Carrie and Heathers funneled through a quintessentially ‘90s filter of brooding alt-rock and slickness, and it’s fun as Hell. Director Andrew Fleming zips it along faster than an old crone on a supersonic broomstick, and all four leads (Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, and Rachel True) possess undeniable chemistry together. Balk takes the cake, though, spitting out her performance as the coven’s sneering, attitude-packing ringleader with unrestrained gusto.

Witchfinder General (Saturday, 6:45 P.M.): Horror icon Vincent Price usually lent a knowing wink to his numerous genre roles in the 1950s and ‘60s. But he’s a stubbled, coldly-malevolent revelation as Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins in director Michael Reeves’ bloody 1968 historical drama. Price’s Hopkins isn’t just some numb monster: He’s a cerebral man so contemptuous of his fellow Englishmen that he has no qualms about running roughshod over them, defiling their women, snuffing out any who speak out against him, and manipulating their ignorance to keep the vicious cycle of 17th-century witch-hunting hysteria in rotation. A lot of modern directors could learn a thing or two about the mud-caked ferocity and relentlessness of pace that Reeves brings to the table.

The Devils (Saturday, 9:00 P.M.): Ken Russell was, indisputably, the most excessive filmmaker of the 1960s and ‘70s, and that’s saying a lot. His films were all about extremes—wild primary colors, relentless swirling camerawork, explicit sexuality, and often highly-stylized acting run rampant through all of his films. The Devils could well be his masterpiece. Fanatical nun Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) develops an unconsummated sexual fascination with Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a libidinous cleric who fights to keep the French city of Loudun from the corrupt grasp of Cardinal Richelieu. Jeanne’s sexual frustration then sets off a chain reaction of hysteria and death with tragic inevitability.

Russell’s hedonism and batshit lunacy erupt in spades, replete with naked demon-possessed nuns, stunning Derek Jarman-designed sets, and an excruciating, torture-filled final reel. But the excess exists as a crucial storytelling tool, highlighting the horrifying but cohesive view of a world rotted from the inside by religious and political corruption. Not that a venal politician hiding behind religion and fear-mongering to crush free thought or dissent would ever fly in this enlightened age…

The Witch (Sunday, 8:00 P.M.): Robert Eggers’ deeply disturbing new film is one of those rare horror films made with enough artistry to lure civilians, even as it delivers serious under-the-skin scares. A family in 1630s New England faces banishment from their colony, and an escalating series of oddities and calamities surface after they settle down on their own just outside the dense forest.

Based on actual historic documentation from the period, The Witch largely eschews a story arc in favor of a sustained descent into horror turf. The film’s tension pivots on whether that horror is rooted in rational explanation or the darkest of dark magic. It’d be evil to reveal which proves true, but suffice it to say Eggers realizes this vision with a spot-on combination of visual dreaminess, fascinating subtext, and grubby immediacy, culminating in one of the most bone-chilling final scenes I’ve seen in a theater in awhile. If you can’t make it Sunday, it begins its formal run at the Uptown on February 19.

More info on the Witches Brew Mini-Fest can be found at the SIFF website.