The Witches (PG, 105 Minutes)
For someone who loves a sip from the holy grail of originality, I would be inclined to suggest that remakes carry cheap substance wherever they may tread. Just look at the god-awful Rambo: Last Blood, Wicker Man or…please god no…Baywatch – bleughhh!
When I was seven, there were only three things that chilled me to the bone. One was an episode of Doctor Who in which a small child from the London Blitz had a gas mask quite literally burnt into his face, the next was the small church two doors down, or ‘the brethren’ as my father would menacingly call them, and the third was Nic Roeg’s 1990 film ‘The Witches’ from the story by Roald Dahl in which Angelica Huston wore a wonky prosthetic nose and had a testicular chin. I spent nights fearing I would be turned into a mouse.
Fast forward 30 years and it’s been remade by Robert Zemeckis with Guillermo Del Toro picking up a writing credit for a film he’s long pined to make, along with the genius Alfonso Cuarón producing. It’s a strange trio, but a strong one at that.
In 60’s Alabama, orphaned Charlie Hansen (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is lifted out of grief by his loving grandmother (Octavia Spencer). But after a chance encounter with a strange lady in a grocery store, who recites some raspy dialogue which is very difficult to translate, it becomes clear to nanna that they’re being spied on by a venomous witch and, in an attempt to lay low, they stumble across a whole convention of Desperate Housewives at a hotel, each with the total eradication of children on their minds.
Now I hate to be so blunt, but stuff it. Let’s be blunt. Whilst there’s a nice level of warmth invested in the characters; the film itself is carried on the back of Anne Hathaway in an outstanding and wholly menacing turn as The Grand High Witch. This is her film from start to finish. You long for her to rock up on screen and you despair when she’s off. Her ability to shift between menacing hag to sexy European socialite is a sight to behold, and her comic timing is stellar. When she’s not belittling hotel manager Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) or having intimate conversations with her black cat, she’s vomiting at the very sight of children playing on a beach.
Most importantly, you can tell she’s having a great time and that’s really something to admire in any actor in any role, regardless of whether the film’s a hit or miss. Last year, whilst on a job at Warner Bros, I was being driven across the lot on a buggy when we stopped for Anne Hathaway to cross the road in full costume. She waved and winked. Maybe this shower of praise is the product of some witchy hex. Who can say?
The film is not exceptionally great, neither is it frighteningly awful. Spencer brings a warm believability to her relationship with grandson Charlie, and the CGI mice are a darn sight better than the mutant abominations we saw in Cats. My biggest issue is tone. Some critics are saying it’s too dark for kids, others that it’s too light for adults. I’m hardly going to fit myself into that conundrum or try to understand it, but there is certainly a chilling nature to the story as proved by Roeg’s original, and this updated retelling struggles to find the line between being light hearted and trying to make kids hide behind the sofa.
P.S. To whoever designed and opted to give Hathaway’s character a Glasgow smile, I love you.