Roald Dahl's The Witches

Roald Dahl's The Witches ★★

31 Nights of (Family Friendly) Horror 2020

#24 - The Witches (2020)

Mr Stringer: Somebody call the exterminator!

If I had a pound for every uninspired, hastily released, point-missing, much anticipated but deeply disappointing adaptation of a literary classic that has been released this month... well, I would have two pounds, but that’s besides the point!

Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches replaces Roeg’s dynamism with lowest common denominator chase sequences and cheap thrills, and reconfigures a story of the externalisation of the inner monstrosity of adults in the mind of children into the  outward genesis of a plot about witches who are monstrous from the get go, devoid of deceptive charm, and grotesque in a manner that seems tailor made for a make-up tutorial and/or a late 90s Disney Channel Halloween film. That may seem harsh, and in fairness the witches’ lacerated, serpent-like distending jaws are on first glimpse a frightful sight, but with CG cheaper and more time efficient to employ alongside the make-up than practical effects and technical ingenuity (how I long for producer Guillermo Del Toro’s proposed stop-motion version of this film), the fear factor is very quickly quelled by an incumbent sense of ‘is that it?’ as rubbery limbs writhe about the screen in pursuit of poorly animated mice.

The film starts promisingly enough, with Chris Rock’s narrator in rich and fine voice setting the scene for the story of his younger self’s run in with a coven of witches at a seaside resort. A projected slideshow flashes the inky text of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel alongside images of witches who have assimilated into American society, and as we journey into the late 60s and the Alabaman town of Demopolis to meet our hero and his grandma, played admittedly with characteristic warmth by Octavia Spencer, all is well. The gently woven undertones of civil rights issues as analogous to the witches’ preying upon society’s most overlooked and underprotected is a promising nod to a new twist on the tale at hand, but from the moment the boy first encounters a snake-sleeved witch whose nefarious nature is under no illusions, things become quite plain to see. And what becomes plain to see? That everything about this film will be plain to see. Subtext is surface, image usurps imagery, and horrid ideas that supplant themselves in young viewers’ minds become visible terrors that shock as opposed to scare. Alfred Hitchcock used to say that the reason he delivered suspense over surprise was because suspense lasted longer - Zemeckis here delivers surprise over suspense because he’s stretching his material far too thin.

Sure, on a performative level you can’t really fault the cast, with Spencer impressing as always and Anne Hathaway relishing a chance to panto it up as the thick-accented Grand High Witch. Stanley Tucci does his best Basil Fawlty as the hotel’s inept manager, whilst newcomers Jahzir Bruno and Codi-Lei Eastick as the young hero and his new friend Bruno clearly are having all the fun in the world... but none of that honestly matters when the script and production simply aren’t up to scratch.

There’s none of the insidious evil of Roeg’s film, none of the boundary pushing implicit terror... the hotel is flat, generic, a lobby from a 90s family film that seems to have been giving the thumbs up by a location scout running out of time and running out of ideas. The witches are avatars of evil rather than evil incarnate. Where Roald Dahl and Nic Roeg saw horror as an essential way to communicate with children and encourage them to realise their own inner heroism and moral convictions, Zemeckis - the same Zemeckis who gave us heroes to admire like Forrest Gump and Marty McFly - fails to see heroism in The Witches as coming from anything more or less than the literal fight between our hero, his friends, and his grandmother, and the coven of witches. There’s no real story of courage being carved out here, but rather of bad guys trying to get the good guys until the good guys get the bad guys. And yeah, sure, that’s what these sorts of stories ultimately boil down to, but if you just want to give me the boiled potatoes without the broth and accoutrements of a whole, hearty meal, than I just don’t really want to stay for dinner.

The film as a whole is inoffensive enough, and it isn’t likely to disappoint those who haven’t seen the original or read Dahl’s book, but when those definitive articles do exist it does beg the question of the necessity of another adaptation if innovation or expansion doesn’t lead the way? Rob Zemeckis *should* have been the man to make this a winner for a new audience, but instead he and his co-conspirators here seem to have done for children’s horror films what the witches wanted to do to the children - turn something filled with potential and life into something that is seen by and large as a blight on the universe.


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