They don't call it “the magic of cinema” for nothing. From its earliest days, special effects, in-camera tricks and creative editing were used to show the impossible taking place. As the idea of narrative took hold, excuses for depicting the impossible were sought, so early films like F. W. Murnau's Faust (1926) and Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922), visualised classic tales of sorcerers and witches, producing an impressive body of spectral evidence.
The idea of magic is very useful in story-telling. The popular tropes of Everyman-solves-problem-stumping-the-
I have therefore selected my favourite 8 scenes in which a spell is actually cast, a magical working performed, in 8 different films. Criteria include a genuine occult frisson, adroitness in depicting the intangible, and sheer, dramatic impact. Spoiler: there's no Harry Potter.
1. “Conjure Up Your Deepest, Darkest Fear.” Gothic, Wri. Stephen Volk, Dir. Ken Russell, Virgin Vision, 1986.
A pivotal scene from Russell's magnificent adumbration of that night at the Villa Diodati. The conceit is that Mary Shelley's inspiration for Frankenstein came from something much more sinister than an evening of ghostly talk. At the instigation of Gabriel Byrne's Byron, these brilliant minds come together to generate a thought form, with regrettably dire consequences.
This is a recognised procedure in many traditions, sometimes used to created guardians for a magician's sanctuary, but always with restrictions on duration and scope of action. However—and with the caveat that I have been unable to establish a connection—the events of Gothic bear a distinct resemblance by “the Philip experiment”, conducted in 1972 by a group led by Canadian mathematician A. R. G. Owen and the psychologist Dr. Joel Whitton. Ostensibly, the purpose was to see if the phenomena of seances could be explained by the expectations participants brought to the table. A completely fictional identity (“Philip”) was created by the group and concentrated on intensely for a sustained period of time by its members, who then attempted to contact the “ghost”. Although subsequent explanations differ, the sought-for phenomena certainly manifested.
Whatever the case, Gothic is sheer genius. The scene captures something of the feverish intensity and focus of such a working, and provides a warning they are not to be undertaken lightly, or under the influence. Watch the film to the end to see Gabriel Byrne snogging Julian Sands.
2. “I'm Sorry, Miss Taylor, I Feel A Little Weak.” Suspiria, Wri. Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi, Dir. Dario Argento, Seda Spettacoli, 1977.
I resolutely decided to limit myself to just one iteration of Suspiria, though I adore them both. This scene was the clincher, along with the original's sumptuous art deco design. New student Susie Banyon has declined to take up her room at the exclusive Marcos Ballet Academy, preferring to stay in town. This does not sit well with the resident coven (devoted to Mater Suspiriarum, the Mother of Sighs—if you are not familiar with de Quincy's formulation of Our Ladies of Sorrow, take yourself immediately to Bartleby.com and read) .When she arrives the next day for class, steps are taken to ensure she comes under their control.
Belief in the Evil Eye—that a person can bring illness or ill luck to another just by meeting their gaze—is both old and widespread. Writing in the first century CE, the Roman author Pliny the Elder credited some sorcerers with the "power of fascination with the eyes”, who could even kill those on whom they fixed their gaze (Natural History, VII.2). In the fifteenth century CE, Heinrich Kramer, the generally credulous author of the Malleus Maleficarum, goes to some trouble to deny his witches this power, instead explaining its effects as the natural impression of a strong personality upon susceptible minds (generally children). This may be down to the number of prominent men to whom the ability has been ascribed through history, up to and including Pope Pius X. To all this, Argento's direction adds a slice of sympathetic magic and the potency of rhythm. It's a good thing Suzie is able to draw on a friend's research to turn the tables.
3. “But How To Prove It?” Curse of the Demon (aka. Night of the Demon) Wri. Charles Bennett & Hal. E. Chester, Dir. Jacques Tourneur, Columbia Pictures, 1957
Bizarre things have been happening ever since psychologist John Holden discovered a strange parchment covered with runes amongst his conference papers. If he acts on the assumption he is under a death curse, he compromises his lifelong skepticism. If, however, he does not...
With a script based on M. R. James's “Casting the Runes” (1911), Tourneur created an intelligent and intensely atmospheric occult thriller, that is referenced in the Rocky Horror Picture Show's “Science Fiction”. The studio's insistence on adding a tell-all prologue and a wildly premature reveal, is infamous, and does undercut the film's essential conflict. But otherwise, this takes its subject seriously, grounding the story in research and allowing characters their dignity. This scene, where Holden confronts the self-proclaimed diabolist Doctor Karswell, suggests he has elementals bound to his service as well as a demon.
Summoning elementals—spirits of the natural world, sometimes thought of as actual creatures, others the “awareness” of natural forces—is common in magic and considered much safer than demons. In either case, symbols representing the entity, it's “name”, are basic to proceedings. The actual runes are depicted elsewhere in the film and, according to Renorseful, are Anglo-Saxon Futhark and don't actually say anything. If these are the demon's name, this is entirely likely: strings of consonants and “nonsense words” represent demons in texts ranging from the Greek Magical Papyrii to the classic grimoires. Don't pronounce them out loud.
4. “You stole our things. You gonna die.” The Last Wave, Wri. Peter Weird, Tony Morphett & Petru Popescu, Dir. Peter Weir, McElroy & McElroy, 1977.
This is Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s and lawyer David Burton has trouble coping with a yellow capsicum. His life is about to get much, much more complicated.
With riveting performances by David Gulpilil and Nandjiwarra Amagula, this brilliantly atmospheric film features indigenous Australian mythology from an external viewpoint, spinning a story from the very clash of cultures this involves. When the dead man's friends are charged with manslaughter (despite the coroner's inability to fix the cause of death), the greatest mystery is why they insist upon Burton defending them. But a reason there is, and uncovering it will bring him face to face with his own past and Sydney's bleak future.
Kurdaitcha, a magical execution performed with the kundela or “pointing bone”, was practised in Central Australia, although there is evidence for considering it was once more widespread. The word itself derives from the Aranda language group. It seems to have been reserved for those who broke tribal law. The concept was introduced to western culture through the work of early anthropologists—importantly, The Native Tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen (1899)—prompting any number of dismissive comments about the power of belief in primitive societies. The thing is, no one ever seems to deny that the procedure worked. Sceptics point out that former Australian Prime Minister John Howard is still alive, despite being cursed in 2004. However, events since that time suggest it was not the man, but the office, that has been slowly dying.
5. “Love Me.” The Love Witch, Wri., Dir (and nearly everything else) Anna Biller, Anna Biller Productions, 2016.
Elaine is the new witch in town. She has come to Arcata, California, to start a new life in a place where she hopes her beliefs will be accepted and she will find the love that has eluded her for her entire life. The only problem with this scintillating sequence is that it simply cannot convey the impact of the full movie. In many ways, the entire 120 minutes are one, intricate ritual, with every image, sound, the slightest article of costume an expression of Bilmer's will. The magnificent pentacle rug that Elaine lies upon? According to her interview with Barend de Voogd (Schokkend Nieuws, 13th February 2016 ) it was woven by the writer, designer, editor, director, producer, and composer herself, so it would be exactly right. The culminative effect is enchantment, a means of overriding your perceptions until you see precisely what the enchanter desires. This, of course, is precisely what Elaine herself is doing.
In this narrative, witchcraft is presented as a legitimate route to female empowerment (as well as a metaphor for how men of a certain stamp insist on seeing women). However, the pitfalls are many. By the end, possessing “perfect love and perfect trust” has become a terrifying prospect.
6. “I Have Awoken Him.” Excalibur, Wri. John Boorman & Ross Pellenberg, Dir, John Boorman, Orion Pictures, 1981.
Come on, all together now! “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha...”
Boorman's achievement in distilling the Arthurian myth cycle into a movie-length narrative has seldom been attempted and never with such triumphant chutzpah. Much of the thematic weight is carried by Nicol Williamson's Merlin—a sterling performance. Before assisting Uther Pendragon to acquire carnal knowledge of his rival's wife, he extracts an oath that will have heavy consequences. In this scene, he delivers, and we the audience hear the Charm for the first time.
According to linguist Michael Everson, it translates from the Old Irish as approximately, “Serpent's breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making”, although he emphasises this is a contemporary confection, with no actual equivalent in the literature. And it's true, we have no direct evidence as to what took place in Stone Henge and its sister circles, apart from certain astronomical markings. But every year at the Winter Solstice, contemporary druids and witches descend upon the plain outside Salisbury (in an orderly fashion, having acquired the appropriate permit), to work their own charms. No one can tell me that chanting a mantra in a stone circle at sunrise or sunset doesn't feel magical and that kind of resonance is powerful in itself. Boorman stated (in an interview with Harlan Kennedy, American Film, March 1981) that the real story of Excalibur was the coming of Christian man, and the relegation of magic and paganism to the shadows. If that's so, I think it misfired.
7. “Show us your glory. Show us your power!” The Craft, Wri. Andrew Fleming & Peter Filadi, Dir. Andrew Fleming, Columbia Pictures, 1996.
Did I mention elementals? Here is another kind of summoning, inviting them to secure the four stations of a magical circle in the Wiccan tradition.
Like The Love Witch, The Craft equates witchcraft and female power, as four outcast teenagers form a bond and rebuild their confidence through magical practice. Much of what is depicted may be described as generic Wiccan—based loosely on Gardner, but passed through too many iterations to really track. The young witches experiment with levitation and glamours, before conducting the ritual above in order to obtain for each her true desire. Although it annoyed a lot of real witches at the time, with its focus on an invented witch's god rather than the goddess, a lot of this film rings true and it should, given that The Craft‘s technical advisor was Pat Devin, a Dianic Elder Priestess. According to this interview, she advised the director to go with an invented deity, “Manon”, because she “didn’t want hordes of teenagers running down to the beach or out to the woods invoking anybody real.”
Regrettably, the little coven starts to implode over romantic rivalry and issues of precedence. Girl after girl turns to witchcraft to obtain revenge. The threefold law is invoked as what began in light turns dark. The essential difference between this and any number of morality plays is that the heroine's salvation does not lie in rejecting her magic and embracing any kind of hero—it lies in accepting her nature and taking responsibility for her own power. As an interesting side note, Devin also says that “Manon” has started appearing in various sources as an actual deity, possibly confused with the Welsh Mabon or Irish Mananan.
8. The Shrug, Stardust, Wri. Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, Dir. Matthew Vaughn, Paramount Pictures, 2007
Talk about plot devices! The highly visual, instantly recognisible voodoo doll has suffered more than most at the hands of cinema. Sympathetic magic, in the form of ritually killing or binding an image of a dangerous or desirable animal, is the oldest form of magic for which we have evidence. The dedication of model organs and body parts at the shrines of healing deities, such as Imhotep and Asclepius, demonstrate the potential of the technique to aid. But everyone knows what happens when a voodoo doll is primed with the hair or nail clippings of the intended victim.
Based on the 1997 novel by Neil Gaiman, the plot of Stardust is romantic and convoluted, brimming with unserious magic. Unserious, yet ingenious. What you need to know is that two parties have been hunting the obvious hero and heroine. The witches have succeeded in trapping them in their sanctum, but Septimus the assassin, only surviving heir to the throne of Stormhold, has followed the trail. Septimus originally had 6 brothers (and one sister), but there have been a lot of “accidents”. Their ghosts follow him, invisible to anyone except the audience, and act as a grisly Greek chorus, commenting on the action which comes in two parts.
And that's my 8 scenes worth! Honourable mentions go to the “hold the door” scene from Conan the Destroyer, the opening scene of Geoffrey Wright's Metal Skin, the scrying scene from Dragonslayer which also features a rare instance of successful necromancy, and despite being television, I have to invoke the, well, in “An Exorcism in Greendale” (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Season 1, Episode 6). I was truly tempted to add the finale of the original The Wicker Man, but, spoilers.