In 1968, a young orphaned boy goes to live in Alabama with his kindly grandma (as played by Octavia Spencer). Emotionally bruised and confused, she manages to bring the boy out of his shell, only for him to be approached by a terrifying witch in a candy store. Instead of disbelieving him, his Grandma takes him all too seriously and insists that they hide immediately, because “once a witch sees you they won’t until leave until they’ve killed you”.
Relocating to a swanky hotel on the Gulf of Mexico, it would seem that they had left their troubles behind them. However, neither of them could have imagined what they were about to step into…
The Witches was justifiably ripe for a remake...
A popular, dark children’s fantasy, you may be familiar with the first on-screen adaptation of Roald Dhal’s novel The Witches by Don’t Look Now‘s director Nicholas Roeg and Muppet Show creator Jim Henson. Wrongly attributed for scarring the young minds of its then audience, their version of The Witches was a distinctly physical and tactile affair. Well before the dawn of CGI, everything was done for real and given an extra putrid layer of weeping silicone in case the point to chill its viewers got lost. Director Robert Zemeckis latest version is definitely not that film.
With a script part formulated by arch-fantasy talent Guillermo Del Toro, it would have seemed Dahl’s taste for the macabre would remain intact for this new version, but no. In changing the story’s location to 1960’s Alabama, much has changed and not necessarily for the worst. Revamped with a luscious palette and buttery-smooth production design, Zemeckis’s version is both ravishing to look at and Alan Silvestri’s score is an invisible, magic carpet to move the action along with. The sublime Octavia Spencer updates and embellishes her role as Grandma with plenty of charming scenes with Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as our young hero and the arrival of Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch doesn’t disappoint. With a razor blade smile in part reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and dentistry akin to Tom Hardy’s Venom, she devours every vowel to delicious effect. Forgivably switching between German and Swedish vocal affectations in the search for the meanest sneer, it’s a highly polished, vampish interpretation that lands somewhere between Cruella de Vil and Morticia Adams. All of which brings us to the inevitable game of comparison between Roeg’s visceral take and Zemeckis’s more popcorn-friendly update.
Whilst the CGI mice in the new version are more polished in the new version, they, much like the film as a whole, lack the chaos of Roeg’s vision. Yet it’s difficult to split the polished performances of Stanley Tucci and Rowan Atkinson, nor many of the other fine actors who add to both productions – with the possible exception of Jane Horrocks’ twitchy Miss Irvine in the 1990’s version. All of which witchery leaves us with the two grand high priestesses, Anne Hathaway vs Angelica Huston or Batwoman vs Morticia Adams if you prefer and there’s your problem all over again. Both of their performances taken on their own merits are great. All of which leaves the tone of each of the movies as the sole dividing factor.
For some, this new American transplant will feel that like ti has all of the ingredients but none of the spice that made Roeg’s version so fiendishly tasty. And yet, seen through the prism of the modern filmmaking and vastly improved special effects, The Witches was justifiably ripe for a remake. It’s a tough call and one that can only be made by what kind of movie you’re looking for. If you want to be scared, stick with Anjelica Houston’s Nosferatu / Kalus Kinski-like appearance in Nicolas Roeg’s version. Conversely, if you want a safer, more chocolate boxy / no nightmares-for-the-kids version, then Anne Hathaway has you covered.
Much like the Coen Brothers remake of that Ealing classic, 1955’s The Lady Killers. Had the original never existed, there would arguably be less, little or possibly even no problem with the remake. However it does exist and whilst Tom Hanks delivered a memorable performance there too, Alec Guinness set the bar very high and so it’s up to you, dear audience to decide here, like then, who your favourite is.
Funnily enough, Octavia Spencer’s Grandma swings for it for me, by a mouse’s whisker. See this one and see which you prefer and then let me know.