Prompted by J. W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, M. and I held a little Salem film festival. (We skipped The Lords of Salem.)
In order of creation, we watched these three movies: Three Sovereigns for Sarah (1985), Hocus Pocus (1993), and The VVitch (2015).
(This looks like a bootleg copy, but I wanted this scene. Sorry about the quality.)
Three Sovereigns for Sarah, a three-part PBS documentary, is well-done, using authentic trial testimony in spots. Vanessa Redgrave, playing accused witch Sarah Cloyse, just dominates it — although she has some competition from the young actresses playing the “afflicted” girls.
A historical consultant told Ocker, “We had a lot more power on the production than historians usually have on commercial things.” They were even able to nix Alexander Scourby’s casting as a judge, because Scourby would not shave his beard, which was historically inappropriate. Clean-shaven Patrick McGoohan replaced him.
The church meeting house where the Rev. Samuel Parrish holds forth was built for the movie, and like all 17th-century buildings, included recessed fluorescent lighting. OK, that’s a joke. But compared to the moody available-light shooting in The VVitch, Three Sovereigns for Sarah is lit like a TV soap opera, giving a sort of “witchcraft under the microscope” vibe.
On the plus side, it gives you the feel of what happened. And guess what — no one is hung for being an herbalist or a healer. That is romantic mush that started in the 1960s and 1970s. It may make you feel good, but it is not about what happened in 1692 in America — or elsewhere.
Importantly, the film gives Sarah Cloyce a speech in which she explains how neatly the witchcraft accusations matched property disputes in Salem Village. In other words, adults were feeding suggestions to the “afflicted” girls about whom to denounce. That is usually the way it works in “children’s crusades.”
BEELEEVE THE CHILDREN!
Of Hocus Pocus (1993), Ocker observes,
The witches are played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Nijimy in, if not exactly career-defining roles, roles that will probably outlast anything they’ve ever done. There are entire generations of people who know Hocus Pocus, but have no idea about wind, wings, sex, city, hair, or spray.
Yes, but it’s Disney (kids win, witches lose). That is probably why I had no interest in it in 1993, and besides, I had student papers to grade. And Sex and the City will be Parker’s role that I remember.
If Three Sovereigns for Sarah presents a documentary-style take on the 1692 witchcraft panic, The VVitch gives us the imagined European witchcraft of the 16th–17th centuries transplanted to New England, where tiny cleared islands of Christianity struggle to survive up against dark walls of savage forests, In that, it echoes some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spookier fiction, in which he dips from the same well.
But it’s a horror movie, so the central character witch is herself a teenager, not a mature woman. Of course you have your pact with the devil, the Witches’ Sabbat, spectral flight, possession, and Black Phillip, the goat who is more than a goat. In lighting, costuming, and general atmosphere, it is the best of the three. Unlike the other two, it was not filmed partly in or near Salem but near Kiosk, Ontario, in order to get the best cinematic forests.
Also, it gives me a segue into talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and witchcraft, coming up.