Heather Greene, Bell, Book and Camera; A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television. McFarland, 2018.
Whilst writing this review I was reminded of a dream I once had. It began with my mother’s face oddly changed by her new glasses, shaped as butterfly wings. She asked me if I liked them. Her blue and grey speckled frames appeared maleficent and witchlike. I couldn’t speak. Mother’s smiles grew bigger as I backed away. Things worsened on hearing a brushing sound accompanied by the image of a slowly opening door. I sensed a hunting witch capable of sweeping my body, and everything in its path, up and away! Then I awoke: anxious, shaken but relieved to be under no spell.
Heather Greene, author of Bell, Book and Candle is also the managing editor of The Wild Hunt, a news journal for the Pagan, Witchcraft, Heathen communities worldwide. Sadly I wasn’t spellbound by her book’s hunt for cinematic witches. It failed to convey a sense of the threat of a witch or delight in her powers. Film witches, over 100 years of film and TV, are analysed and catalogued but never described in a manner as cogent as my teenage dream. I learnt that a witch’s dual function is one of empowerment or oppression. And many, many examples of this are listed, leaving me disengaged though greatly admiring of Greene’s persevering research – for all manner and variety of crone and witch is tabulated here.
We have the first movie industry witches of 1896 – 1919, Wild Women, Vamps and Green Skin from 1919 – 1939, War and Weird Women (her best chapter title) 1939-1950, witches groping towards A New Hollywood (1951 -1967), their deepening encounter with Horror and the Fantastic 1968-1982, reactions to The Satanic Panic of 1983-1999 and finally A New Witch Order established during 2000-2016.
Its only at page 59 when Heather Greene arrives at her favourite witch film, the one where the old wicked crone only appears for 12 minutes, yes you’ve guessed it, The Wizard of Oz, that she begins to enthuse. But after three pages, Greene’s off on a gallop documenting even more witch-centred productions. Being constantly over-in love with her subject turns Greene’s book into a very comprehensive reference book but not the specific critical history she might have also intended.
Along with Oz, the other three iconic Hollywood films about witches are probably I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle and Rosemary’s Baby which are given due, if insufficient attention. Greene describes Mia Farrow’s terrors, is perceptive on Kim Novak’s witch person and intriguing about Veronica Lake’s sexual power.
There are delightful facts uncovered about actors – especially Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz.
“Hamilton notes that she wasn’t aware at first why they had decided to use the green makeup, but later learned of the problem caused by the new Technicolor process. By covering her in green makeup, she could wear the black dress without her head and hands looking disembodied. As a result of that choice driven by technology, Halloween witches forevermore became associated with green skin.”
Bell, Book and Camera is only concerned to examine American film and TV. Which is a pity, for do I think a chapter linking European cinema’s witches and their influences could have proved rewarding. Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (with Barbara Steele’s potent witch portrait) - Sidney Hayer’s The Night of the Eagle and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc arguably make for much more serious impact on the viewer than many of the American witch films under discussion (I was surprised that Val Lewton’s haunting 1943 RKO witchcraft movie The Seventh Victim wasn’t included in Greene’s book).
To alter a proverb, it’s not cooks but too many witches that have spoiled the broth here. Still there are movie-witch facts galore. And I now have an encyclopaedia of them to mull over. – Alan Price