Digital Review – The Witches (2020)

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, why? Why re-make a film when the original is so timeless that it’s taken on a life of its own? It’s little more than a week since the question hung over Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca and now it’s suspended over Robert Zemeckis’s re-boot of The Witches like the proverbial sword. Both directors with strong track records and with reputations for doing something different. Over to you, Mr Zemeckis …..

Transplanted from its original Scandinavian/English setting to 1960s Alabama, the narrative is still based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, with an unnamed Boy (Jahzir Bruno) moving in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. After encountering what turns out to be a witch in the local store, his grandmother educates him about the child-hating murderous witches in the world – and soon afterwards, he comes face to face with not just one of them, but an entire coven gathered together in a hotel. The very one where he and his granny are staying. And the results are potentially calamitous.

If fans of the book and the Nicolas Roeg film from 1990 are hoping for something equally scary, then they’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s as if the horror element of the story has been surgically removed, replaced by unpleasantness, nastiness even, but there’s very little that’s frightening about it, certainly for today’s audience. The hairs on the back of your neck won’t even twitch, although younger viewers might find one or two sequences harder to take. But when the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has facial scars that put you in mind of The Joker and the reality of her features seems to have been created by a face changing app, you rather get the picture. Add to that some very bog-standard special effects, and the fear factor simply plummets.

Which makes it a deeply unfaithful adaptation of the Dahl book, certainly in terms of its spirit and atmosphere. His stock in trade was a randomly cruel world full of strange and wonderful delights. All that really connects this version to Dahl’s world is the constant references to candy and, in particular, chocolate. And the change of setting to post-segregation Alabama, created by Zemeckis and co-writers Guillermo del Toro and Kenya Barris, is strange to the point of feeling like a box ticking exercise. The majority of the staff – bellhops, maids etc – at the hotel are all black, the wealthy clientele all white so the sight of an elderly black woman and her grandson as guests creates dropped jaws all round. Are we watching a story where a young boy confronts racism, disguised as child-hating witches, or is this a tale of children meeting monsters and being changed forever by an unpredictable world? It’s hard to know and the film doesn’t offer an answer.

It means the classy line-up of Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci is  between a rock and a hard place. Hathaway is the only person in the cast who appears to be enjoying herself, mangling the English language with her German accent in a way that would make Inspector Clouseau puff up with pride. Spencer is always watchable, but even she struggles with her character, who could be something of a sorceress in her own right, or simply just a caring granny. We’ll never know. But what is transparently clear is that this version of The Witches is a pale imitation of both the original film and book, one that fails to capture the deliciously wicked nature of Dahl’s world or deliver any spine tingling moments. It’s as if somebody cast an evil spell over it.

★★


Comedy, Horror, Family | Cert: PG | Warner Brothers | Video On Demand, 26 October 2020 | Dir. Robert Zemeckis | Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Bruno, Chris Rock.