The Witches (2020) Review

The Witches (2020)
1967. An unnamed Alabama orphan (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) arrives at a luxury seafront hotel with his grandma (Octavia Spencer), only for them to find themselves in the midst of a scheming coven led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) — who is planning the extermination of all children by turning them into mice.

by Nick de Semlyen |
Published on
Release Date:

29 Oct 2020

Original Title:

The Witches (2020)

Roald Dahl's classic horror tale, half-Suspiria, half-Ratatouille, would seem tailor-made for Robert Zemeckis' camera. After all, this is the filmmaker who trapped Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep in a baroque, often hilarious house of horrors in Death Becomes Her, who executive produced Tales From The Crypt, who brought us that traumatic scene involving a cartoon shoe and a barrel of dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The man knows scary. And more to the point, he knows how to make scary fun.

The Witches (2020)

Which is why The Witches registers as a mild disappointment. Kicky and colourful, it ushers in its titular characters with elan, but ultimately is somewhat lacking in the frights department. And while it hits all the lurid beats of Dahl's tale, it fails to add much of its own, aside from transplanting the action from 1980s Bournemouth to 1960s Alabama. The unnamed child hero (played by likeable newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, plus slightly hokey narration from Chris Rock) still winds up at a seafront hotel with his grandma (Octavia Spencer), only to find themselves in the midst of a scheming coven. There's still a grotesque 'unwigging' set-piece, much rat-like sniffing out of children (“The cleaner the kid, the poopier he smells,” somebody explains), and plenty of four-pawed antics as several characters are turned into mice, prompting Zemeckis to go to town with the CGI.

Whenever Anne Hathaway’s on screen, the film comes to life.

In Nicolas Roeg's 1990 adaptation, Anjelica Huston ruled the roost as the Grand High Witch, formidable in her imperious human form and unforgettably nightmarish in her Jim Henson-enhanced, sausage-nosed true mien. Anne Hathaway's take on the character here is less trauma-forming, but lots of fun: she's equipped with a Garbo-on-steroids accent that gives the word “mice” seven consonants, amped-up haughtiness, and a wardrobe that perfectly straddles the line between chic and infernal. Whenever she’s on screen, the film comes to life. And Zemeckis finds some new, tech-assisted ways to make the GHW scary, such as freakishly elongating arms, all the better for chasing shrunken infants through vents.

Elsewhere, though, it's all a little plodding. It never hits the visceral heights of Roeg's vision, with only flashes of visual brilliance (there's a doozy of a shot of a car in a snowstorm). And while promising elements are wheeled into place — not least Stanley Tucci as the toadying hotel manager — it's never quite as wild and outrageous as it could be. Still, there’s enough zip and zest to make it a fun Halloween treat, and the notion that there are sinister witches among us remains an effectively spooky one. Hint on how to identify them, based on this film: they pronounce garlic “gorlick”.

A supernatural, effects-laden yarn like this is right in Robert Zemeckis' wheelhouse. Which makes it a little disheartening that it’s merely good, rather than great. Dahl's story still sings, but like a potion missing eye of newt, this new take is slightly undercooked.
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