Roald Dahl’s The Witches was terrifying as both a novel and as a high-camp ‘90s horror-comedy. It presented, quite frankly, a world full of child-hating witches whose sole purpose in life was to exterminate young people. Robert Zemeckis’ new adaptation of the story is far sillier than any of its predecessors, but it still manages to convey that very specific kind of youth horror that’s always made the title sing.
Set at some point in the 1960s, this telling of The Witches—previously set for theaters but now streaming on HBO Max—introduces you to an 8-year-old unnamed protagonist (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) who moves from Chicago to Demopolis, Alabama to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) following the sudden deaths of both his mother and father. Before The Witches gets down to the important business of trying to scare you, the movie takes more than a few beats to thoughtfully convey just what shape the young boy’s grief takes as he mourns—namely that he becomes withdrawn and sullen, as he feels there’s little to live for.
Though it at first seems like the film intends on revisiting the boy’s grief repeatedly, the script instead uses the story it’s telling to illustrate how compassionate and understanding the grandmother character is. She’s careful to give her grandson his space, but also reminds him that he’s not the only one in pain. By setting up this dynamic between the boy and his grandmother, The Witches immediately makes clear that the boy isn’t wholly alone in the world—despite the reality that Dahl’s story was, in part, always about how lonely and frightened children tend to feel when moving through adult spaces.
As the pair settle into their new shared lives in Demopolis, the plot’s magical elements come into focus after the boy encounters a witch. He promptly tells his grandmother, who makes no attempt at dismissing his concerns. It’s always somewhat of a relief when kids explain supernatural things to adults, and the adults simply get it, because it establishes both a level of respect between the characters and telegraphs that the dangers at hand won’t simply boil down to the adults in the room being dullards.
Spencer and Bruno have an easy, charming chemistry that sells you on the idea of them being exactly the sort of people who need each other’s company in their time of grief. In a bit of characterization more in line with Dahl’s book than the ‘90s movie, the grandmother’s own history with witches factors into why she’s so easily able to believe her grandson, and why she resolves to treat them both to a getaway vacation to the nearby Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel where she’s certain they can lay low and hide from the witches for a while.
Between featuring a family of Black protagonists and placing its story in the South during the ‘60s, The Witches takes on a different kind of energy that gently gestures to the existence of discrimination without letting it fully consume the movie. When the grandmother-grandson duo arrives at the luxurious establishment, the predominantly Black staff are all rather surprised, though pleased to see them, whereas the hotel manager Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) balks somewhat. The story never quite gets around to calling racism out explicitly, but in Spencer’s knowing glances and Tucci’s heightened smarminess, the movie’s awareness of the topics it’s dancing around is obvious, and it works.
Up until its titular gaggle of sorceresses arrive, The Witches is perfectly quaint, but not exactly what one would call “fun.” Thankfully that all changes the moment the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) dramatically enters the scene flanked by her impeccably dressed entourage of magic users. In Hathaway’s very suspect attempt at a Norwegian accent, you can tell she’s trying valiantly to set her performance apart from Anjelica Huston’s turn as the same character. But more often than not, the Grand High Witch comes across like Wanda Maximoff’s distant cousin, which is to say that the accent ends up being rather distracting.
Thankfully, the film spends most of its witch-related time pulling focus to their extravagant period costumes, which are all part of elaborate disguises meant to hide their true demonic nature. In scenes where the camera zooms on the witches’ hidden grotesqueness, The Witches does an impressive job of showing off what just a little bit of CGI can do to make an actor monstrous. However, the same praise isn’t quite as deserved for the film’s handling of the important transformation sequences that take place after the young boy and his new friend Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick) are attacked by the coven.
While The Witches’s attempts to spook you might not land quite as hard for older viewers with fond memories of Nicolas Roeg’s film, the new movie does feature more than enough disturbing scenes aimed at younger audience members for whom this story is brand new.
If you’ve any familiarity with how any of the previous incarnations of The Witches come to an end, this movie’s final moments won’t come as any big surprise, but it is interesting to see that for all the small changes made to this telling, the heroes’ ultimate fates are left untouched, which is surprising because of how dark they originally were. As much time as the story spends telling you that the witches’ weirdness is what makes them so scary (in addition to the whole “kill all kids” schtick), in the end, it settles on the idea that strangeness and change aren’t inherently bad things. Instead, the movie leaves you with the idea that change, no matter painful, can lead to healing if you’ve got the right people in your corner supporting you emotionally. It’s a solid message that contrasts well with The Witches’ over-the-top approach to cheesy body horror and monsters that might otherwise traumatize kids, but here The Witches just ends up being fun more than anything else.
The Witches also stars Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Josette Simon, and Orla O’Rourke. It’s now streaming on HBO Max with a planned theatrical release in select markets on October 28.
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