Weekend Roundtable: Magical Thinking

Between ‘Doctor Strange’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts’, magic appears to be one of the dominant themes of the fall movie season this year. Excluding ‘Harry Potter’ (too easy), what are your favorite movies involving witches, wizards, sorcerers or warlocks?

Shannon Nutt

Although it may not immediately pop to mind when one thinks about movies with magic in them, my vote for this week’s Roundtable goes to ‘Excalibur‘, John Boorman’s beautiful (although occasionally gory and sexually explicit) film about King Arthur. For my money, it’s still the best big-screen telling of the legend. Here we get a pair of mystical magic-makers: the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson), who plans Arthur’s ascension to the throne from the very beginning, even playing a part in his conception; and the villainous Morgana (Helen Mirren), Arthur’s half-sister, who wants nothing more than to see Merlin’s vision of Camelot destroyed, to the point where she takes on the form of Arthur’s love Guinevere in order to father Arthur’s child – a child that will grow up to defeat him.

If you’ve never seen ‘Excalibur’ or think it might be too old and dated for your moviegoing tastes, give it a chance. It’s available on Blu-ray and may surprise you at how well it holds up after 35 years.

Luke Hickman

Although it didn’t make much noise when it opened, I’m a fan of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice‘. Disney’s live-action expansion of the ‘Fantasia’ vignette with mops has everything that you’d expect from a fun Disney movie, plus it stars crazy-in-a-good-way Nicolas Cage! Jay Baruchel was once up-and-coming. His starring role test in ‘She’s Out of My League’ proved that he could lead a movie. Following that success, he starred in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (and sadly faded away into indie stardom and television after that).

Jon Turteltaub may not make the best films, but he sure knows how to make fun ones. ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ is exciting Hollywood fluff. Every once in a while, that’s not a bad thing. Making it even better is the cast. Not only was this a big step for Baruchel’s career, but it brought little-known actors Teresa Palmer and Toby Kebbell to mainstream movies. Palmer played the cute-as-a-button romantic interest and Kebbell played the villain’s apprentice.

M. Enois Duarte

One of my favorite fantasy movies having to do with magic is the 1987 horror comedy ‘The Witches of Eastwick‘. How can you go wrong with a Jack Nicholson movie? Even at his worst, he’s still a great joy to watch on screen.

Although he’s arguably better known for more famous roles, the legendary actor’s best and most memorable performance, in my opinion, is as the mysteriously eccentric, wealthy dilettante with an equally enigmatic name, Daryl Van Horne. Opposite him are the three lovely ladies: Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. Local creative types unhappy with the direction of their lives, they have untapped magical potential. When Van Horne, a name that implies his devilish origins as well as his insatiable sexual prowess, comes along, he inspires the women to use their instinctual but dormant otherworldly powers. Loosely based on the little-known John Updike novel of the same name, the story is a great morality tale about individuality, using magic, witches and the Devil as a metaphor for that journey towards self-discovery.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I can hardly read the word “witches” without imagining it hissed as it is throughout the soundtrack of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria‘. The first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, this phantasmagoric tale of witches that run a Swiss ballet academy puts the “gore” in “gorgeous.” Its slew of murders are grisly in the most dementedly imaginative ways. To even describe the first death would be more than I’d be comfortable contributing to this Roundtable, but suffice it to say that it’s one of the most unforgettable and unnerving sequences in the annals of genre cinema.

‘Suspiria’ was one of the last films to be printed in three-strip Technicolor, ensuring that its palette isn’t just vivid but positively otherworldly. Between Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, it has stylish camerawork to match. Bolstering its visual flair are an outstanding lead performance by Jessica Harper and her large, expressive eyes, as well as Goblin’s wildly influential prog-rock score. ‘Suspiria’ is as close to a waking nightmare as I’ve seen translated to film, and I’m counting the days until Synapse Films’ long-in-the-making Blu-ray release finds its way into my hands.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

I’m a big fan of John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur‘. Shot on location in Ireland, it’s a visual treat, with lush greenery and judicious use of practical special effects. As far as sorcerers go, this Merlin forgoes the long beard and pointy hat for a closely cropped goatee and a fashionable metal skull cap. Arthur’s re-awakening and ride out to battle near the end of the film to the tune of Orff’s “O Fortuna” (“Carmina Burana”) is a high point for me. And though the lead actors didn’t have many major roles after, some of the supporting players went on to great things. Look for Helen Mirren as a deliciously evil step-sister/sorceress, and keep your eyes peeled among the knights and kings to see if you can spot Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds all in very early roles.

Also among my favorite sword and sorcery epics is the ‘Lord of the Rings‘ trilogy. Earlier attempts at realizing this ambitious tale on the big screen were fairly unsuccessful. (Anyone remember the song “Frodo of the Nine Fingers?” from the animated ‘Return of the King’? Ouch.) But Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the series was a true masterpiece. Yes, some parts of the books didn’t make it into the movie version (Tom Bombadil, for one), but all of the essential elements were there, wonderfully realized. The combination of great storytelling, excellent acting, superb digital and practical effects and makeup, and just enough humor, make for an enjoyable cinematic escape.

Josh Zyber

Most tales of witches and magic veer toward horror, but ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service‘ is a charming anime film by master animator Hayao Miyazaki about a 13-year-old witch who leaves home for the first time to discover her purpose in life. The story is set in a world where magic is accepted as a matter-of-fact reality. Everyone young Kiki meets is friendly and helpful. Even as a witch, no one fears or misunderstands her. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the film is how compelling it can be even through very little narrative action actually happens in it. Once Kiki discovers that her ability to fly makes her perfectly suited to package delivery, she goes about introducing herself to the town and figuring out how she can help people. That’s about it, really, but the characters are so endearing and the story is told with so much humor and warmth that it transcends the need for complicated plotting.

Despite being made in Japan, the movie is perfectly Western in its storytelling approach and has no dark elements that might scare younger viewers. It’s well suited to children of any age, and is thoughtful and intelligent enough to entertain older viewers and parents as well.

Tell us your picks for this topic in the Comments below.


  1. Csm101

    As far as witches go, I still love The Craft.
    As far as sword and sorcery, Conan the Barbarian/Destroyer, Beastmaster, any low budget schlock from the 80’s that I may have rented. I still get a kick out of those.

    • Thulsadoom

      You beat me to it! Conan the Barbarian is my favourite. I love the ‘earthy’ feel of the magic/sorcery in it. It somehow always feels just-shy of reality.
      For outright fantasy fun magic, Conan the Destroyer, Beastmaster, Willow, Red Sonja, Legend, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, etc… On and on…

      If we’re talking just movies specifically about witches… I’m going to go with I Married A Witch, with Veronica Lake. She’s just… well, she makes the film! 😀

  2. Bolo

    Miyazaki is definitely the king of the fantasy genre. I was pleased to read a headline this week that he is (once again) postponing his retirement.

  3. EM

    As E says, how can you go wrong with a Jack Nicholson movie? I nominate Roger Corman’s 1963 comedy-fantasy The Raven, which pits Vincent Price against Boris Karloff in a sorcerers’ battle royale. Peter Lorre chews the scenery as a bumbling, boozing wizard who sometimes appears in the form of the titular corvid. His son, in a supporting role, is played by a young Jack Nicholson; a usually sensible and straightforward lad capable of rising to heroics, he briefly becomes the Jack Nicholson we know—mad gleam in his eye—when under magical influence.

    (Note: Karloff also starred, alongside Béla Lugosi, in a 1935 horror classic entitled The Raven, but the films are otherwise unrelated save for being very loosely connected to Poe’s immortal poem, and the earlier film features no supernatural element.)

    • Bolo

      I can’t believe nobody said ‘The Wizard of Oz’. In the intro they say ‘Harry Potter’ was too obvious, but I guess when I think of movie witches, I always think of the Wicked Witch of the West.

  4. Pedram

    I’m gonna throw my hat in for Willow. Loved it as a kid and watched it again as an adult and it still holds up fairly well. Not sure why it kinda bombed in theatres.

  5. Bolo

    ‘The Witches’ (1990) might be one of those films that is only good if you saw it when you were a kid. My sister and I used to watch it fairly often. Even as a kid, I could tell when they were switching from one effects technique to another, but it didn’t bother me. It’s a fun adventure. Angelica Husten is a ton of fun as the villain.

    • ‘The Witches’ always bugged me because of how many times a character’s annoying voice says “Luke.” (I think it was a grandma-type character.) Hearing your own name like that for the run of an entire feature film is grating.

      The same goes for Luke Skywalker’s off-screen aunt in ‘Episode IV.’

  6. Michael

    The recent film entitled “The Witch” was very realistic. I’d also recommend “Dreams in the Witch House” directed by Stuart Gordon for the Masters of Horror series. Haxen is also a must and is hellish for its time! I recently wrote a song called “Witches’ Dance” because it inspired me!

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