Movies are all about magic and the people who make them have sometimes been described as wizards conjuring up fantastical images. Not surprisingly, wizards, witches, warlocks, sorcerers, and other practitioners of the dark arts have been popular subjects for film. So here are some of the best, most memorable, and powerful wizards and witches you will find on screen. To narrow the field, we'll leave voodoo magic to another list. So just say abracadabra, hocus pocus and presto, here's the list.
The Harry Potter franchise gets the prize for the longest running film series about wizards and for gathering the most wizards and witches under one roof. The films, based on the wildly popular J.K. Rowling books, is set at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry so there's plenty of opportunity for casting spells and displays of magical powers. On the side of good are Harry and his friends as well as a good number of the teachers. Harry's arch nemesis, though, is the creepy and powerful Voldemort (played by Ralph Fiennes). I also enjoy the ever sarcastic Alan Rickman as Snape.
No list of wizards would be complete without a mention of Merlin. He's had quite a few incarnations over the years and he usually has to face off against his conniving and ruthless rival Morgana. The best pairing of these two can be found in John Boorman's Excalibur. Nicol Williamson is Merlin and the cruelly seductive Helen Mirren is Morgana. The two performers had worked previously on a stage production of Macbeth, a play which is supposedly cursed and which contains a trio of "weird sisters." Disney served up a more kid-friendly version of Merlin in its delightful Sword in the Stone.
Another famous cinematic wizard is found in this adaptation of Frank Baum's classic children's story. The title role was written with W.C. Fields in mind but the money and the timing apparently weren't right for him. So Frank Morgan ended up playing the title character that's not exactly who he pretends to be – "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" Since the wizard is only onscreen for a short time, Morgan was also given multiple roles throughout the film including Professor Marvel, the Gatekeeper, the cab driver with the "horse of a different color," and the Wizard's Guard. Plus you get the Wicked Witch of the West (a cackling Margaret Hamilton) and the good witch Glinda (the ever so sweet Billie Burke). A Hollywood classic that's lost none of its magic.
When speaking of wizards you have to include the formidable pair found in The Lord of the Rings. Ian McKellan makes a magnificent Gandalf and Christopher Lee is smugly vile as his nemesis Saruman in this epic saga of good and evil. When we first meet McKellan's Gandalf he is like a kindly old uncle delighting the children with fireworks. But as the saga continues he gains stature and weight as we see him battle the forces of evil. Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's classic novels captures the wonder and awe of a world where magic exists.
Italian filmmaker Dario Argento has been working on his trilogy about powerful witches for decades and only concluded it in 2007. The series began in 1977 with Suspiria. Hollywood star Joan Bennett made her last screen appearance as Madame Blanc, the headmistress of a girl's ballet school and a powerful witch. Each film deals with a different one of the titular Mothers who form a trio of ancient, evil, and powerful witches who try to use their magic to manipulate events on a global scale. Argento's films are ablaze with a bold and bloody visual style.
Also from Italy but preceding Argento by almost two decades is Mario Bava's Black Sunday (originally titled The Mask of Satan). Shot in gloriously moody black and white the film offers a sharp contrast to the vividly hued Argento films. Black Sunday wastes no time casting its spell on viewers. It opens with the raven-haired Barbara Steele as Princess Asa being bound to a tree. She has been accused of witchcraft by her brother and faces death. But she vows to come back from the grave to seek revenge. Then the executioner places a mask – with spikes inside – onto her face and then hammers it on. Needless to say she's none too happy when she returns from the grave. This one is a classic.
Now for a little witchcraft from Hong Kong. Brigit Lin plays the title character in these wildly over the top films from Ronny Yu. Lin's character Ni-Chang is technically not a witch in the first film but becomes the White-Haired Witch (and beware of those long lethal locks!) in the second film after she feels betrayed by her lover. Plot is irrelevant – and sometimes downright impossible to follow – but style is everything. Yu endows the film with jaw-dropping wizardry that obeys no rules of reality. This is Hong Kong flying people at its best.
Japan's Hayao Miyazaki often deals with witches, magic, and spells so it was tough to pick just one of his films to represent. Howl's Moving Castle has a wide array of magic and Spirited Away is kicked into gear by a spell cast on a young girl's parents. But only Kiki focuses on a witch-in-training. The animation is enchanting as Miyazaki deals with familiar themes about young people moving from dependence to independence. The film is also about finding one's own identity through hard work and sometimes sheer luck. Once again Miyazaki lets the world of magic and spells coexist alongside the real one as it that were the most natural thing. This one is great for kids.
Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer play witches to Jack Nicholson's devilish rake who might just be Satan himself. This film adaptation of John Updike's novel doesn't have quite the same satiric bite as its source material, but it's a fun spin on the battle of the sexes. Nicholson, though, steals the show from his trio of lovely witches.
Another literary adaptation, this time based on Roald Dahl's youth novel. A young boy stumbles onto a witches' convention at the hotel where he is staying. Then he discovers they have a plan to rid the world of all children. Naturally, he decides he has to stop them. Anjelica Huston has a grand time as the Grand High Witch with supporting work from Rowan (Mr. Bean) Atkinson. When the young lad is transformed into a mouse he is played by a puppet created by Jim Henson. This would be the last film Henson personally oversaw (he passed away later that year). Although enjoyable, the film didn't quite capture the humor of Dahl's book.
Bonus Selection: Ralph Bakshi's animated film Wizards (1977)
Bonus Selection: Ralph Bakshi's animated film Wizards (1977)