There was a time when you could spot witches a mile away. The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth were deliberate outsiders who wore cheap medieval rags and always had a cauldron going in the backyard.
Today’s modern sorceress, by contrast, has learned how to blend in — keeping up appearances while adopting the uniforms of others, whether that means a leotard, a protective space suit or a hijab.
That, at least, describes the attire for the figures in the three films in the Nickelodeon’s forthcoming film series Weird Sisters: Power, Possession, and Feminine Abjection, sponsored by the University of South Carolina Women’s and Gender Studies and the South Carolina Honors College, which will play on several dates throughout October.
A previous film series, which debuted last year, presented a variety of films to demonstrate the traditional female horror figures of mother, maiden and crone. This year, the focus is more on the latter, with films — A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2015), last year’s High Life and the 2018 remake of Suspiria that feature fresh takes on dominant females wielding dangerous (if not always magical) powers.
During a lunchtime chat at Curiosity Coffee Bar, series curators Julia Elliott (novelist and USC Women’s and Gender Studies professor) and Alice Lilitu (the Nick’s programming director) talked about the different ways the films present the modern witch.
Take, for example, the nameless lead figure in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The title promises a vulnerable young woman; instead, we meet a lass in Middle Eastern garb who has no problem taking care of herself — a vampire who is both a seductive femme fatale and an avenging angel.
This debut feature from the Iranian-American Director Ana Lily Amirpour was an immediate cult hit, partly because few (or maybe no) audiences had ever seen a bloodsucking freak portrayed as a Persian female, but also because of Amirpour’s blending multiple influences
“She takes the vampire trope and tells an overtly feminist story with it,” Elliott says,“ but at the same time there’s a lot of surreal stuff going on underneath, with imperialist metaphors and cultural mixes, like Iranian culture with pop culture from America and black and white cinema and David Lynch all swirling together.”
High Life, a haunting and beautiful late career masterpiece (and English language debut) from legendary French Director Claire Denis, follows the grim fate of passengers on a spacecraft: death row prisoners participating in an interstellar experiment in post-apocalyptic procreation that goes horribly awry.
Set apart from the other two films, High Life has a foot in both sci-fi and horror. The witch figure in this case is a doctor (played by Juliette Binoche) bent on using any means possible to bring about artificial insemination.
“The things she does are not supernatural,” Elliott reasons, “but they do have to do with the concoction of life and fertility.”
2018’s Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagino, is an ambitious, longer and even more stylized remake of Dario Argento’s famously over-the-top 1977 cult classic, where a virginal young ingénue arrives at a dance academy and soon finds herself locked in a bloody, skin-crawling battle of wits and wills with the literal coven of witches on staff.
The new version, set in Berlin in 1977, is rooted in both feminism and politics — particularly the West German government’s standoff with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, as well as the legacy of the country’s Nazi past.
For Lilitu, Guadagino’s reboot is an inspired variation on Argento’s story.
“In the original, witches are these scary cool figures but their interior lives are not really taken seriously, their motives aren’t really taken seriously,” the programming director offers. “It’s the classic monster spectre of the horror movie. With this one, there’s this inner political turmoil coming from the coven.”
While only Suspiria deals with actual witchcraft, all the films “play with the images and expectations” we associate with movies about witches, Lilitu says.
Also, they are unpredictable.
“I would say these are all feminist films in their examination of power and gender,” she explains, “but it’s not like an easy didactic sort of flip, where actually the female monster is completely good. There are different uses of power and violence going on. It’s complicated and it’s messy.”
For Elliott, the three films also share a bond — like the original Weird Sisters themselves.
“The films are each evocations of weirdness, which goes back to the old English word wyrd,’” she says, “which is a lot more mysterious, and has to do with fate.”
What: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Where: Nickelodeon Theatre, 1607 Main St.
When: Friday, Oct. 4, 9:30 p.m.
More: 803-254-3433, nickelodeon.org