Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

“By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes”

While Kathryn Hunter utters the immortal Shakespearean lines in a haunting performance as the trio of witches in 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a choir of school children holding (enormous) singing frogs incorporate a version of it into a performance in the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Witches on screen can be anything from prophetic to wise, cruel, nurturing, or brave, but the one common factor is that Hollywood loves a woman embracing her magic.

In the popular classics, witches take the forefront. There are the trio of reawakened Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus, the cursed witch sisters in Practical Magic, three single women have their wishes granted in The Witches of Eastwick, Angela Lansbury’s apprentice witch trying to defend Britain in WWII in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and a witch married to an ordinary man just can’t stop using her powers to solve problems in Bewitched. And then there’s the bad witches… Tilda Swinton’s White Witch steals every scene she’s in in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Meryl Streep tackles Sondheim as the witch in Into the Woods; Angelica Houston gave children everywhere nightmares in The Witches, and perhaps the most famous of all, the Wicked Witch of the West, cackles into the fray with The Wizard of Oz.

Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee may not be described as witches but their childcare methods incorporate a heavy spoonful of magic, and Queen Elsa turns things to ice and curses her home with an infinite winter in Frozen. In addition, the criminally underrated Stardust features no end of magic and Claire Danes as a fallen star. 

I am not a Witch

(2017, Dir.: Rungano Nyoni)

In a remote Zambian village, a serious little 9-year-old girl (Maggie Mulubwa) is denounced as a witch. As she refuses to confirm nor deny the accusation, she is banished from her village, leading to a journey of exploitation in a witch camp and as a tourist exhibit. Writer-director Rungano Nyoni and producer Emily Morgan won the BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for their work on this critically acclaimed film.

I am not a Witch is available to stream on Netflix; rent on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema; and rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, and Google Play

Kiki’s Delivery Service

(1989, Dir.: Hayao Miyazaki)

This Studio Ghibli classic adapts Eiko Kadono’s 1985 novel about a young witch, Kiki (voiced in Japanese by Minami Takayama) who uses her mandatory year of independent life to move to a fictional European seaside town with her black cat Jiji, and uses her flying powers to earn a living by running an air courier service. The film embraces the themes of maturity and growing up, as Kiki must navigate leaving her parents behind, finding a job, and taking care of herself in another country.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is available to stream on Netflix

Matilda

(1996, Dir.: Danny DeVito)

The highly intelligent and gifted Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) develops magical powers and uses them to deal with her terrible parents and brother, and the tyrannical headmistress of her school, Agatha Trunchball (Pam Ferris). Director Danny DeVito received widespread praise for his beloved adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, but it was a financial flop, barely recouping its budget at the box office. Matilda’s telekinetic powers made for highly entertaining viewing (especially those of us who saw it as children in the cinema in the 1990s…) and Matilda helped a generation of young girls recognise that reading was extremely cool.

Matilda is available to stream on Netflix and Sky Cinema; and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Google Play and Sky Store

The Love Witch

(2016, Dir.: Anna Biller)

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a modern-day witch who uses spells and potions in her gothic Victorian apartment to seduce men to fall in love with her, but with deadly consequences. This sumptuous comedy horror from writer-director Anna Biller emulates the camp style of 1960s and 1970s B-movies with a gorgeous mimicry of the kitsch and cheese. Biller, influenced by feminist film theory, deliberately chose a witch for her protagonist as a means to explore female sexuality, power and the femme fatale archetype.

The Love Witch is available stream on Mubi; and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Google Play, and Sky Store

The Witch

(2015, Dir.: Robert Eggers)

In 1630s New England a Puritan family encounters the supernatural in the woods beyond their farm. Anya Taylor-Joy makes her film debut in this deeply disturbing horror inspired by folktales and historical records of witchcraft. The central premise is based on the first instance of witch hysteria in America, 62 years before the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

The Witch is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Google Play and Sky Store


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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