The Original Version of 'The Witches' Is So Much Better Than the New Remake
The new HBO Max remake, starring Anne Hathaway, is fine, but the 1990 original, now streaming on Netflix, is where the real scares are.
Robert Zemeckis' extra-campy take on Roald Dahl's The Witches recently hit HBO Max, but if you're looking for something truly spooky to watch, go back to Nicolas Roeg's 1990 adaptation starring Anjelica Huston. It's right there on Netflix, and it's deeply unsettling in a way that the new film is most certainly not. If you want to revisit the horrors of childhood this Halloween season, give the old version a swing.
That's not to say the new take on the material doesn't have some scares—on top of a truly insane performance from Anne Hathaway, who is endeavoring to do the most at all possible times—but anything truly haunting is muddled by an over-reliance on CGI. The comparison between these two movies serves as a good reminder that more technology often doesn't equal more terror.
The story by Dahl—the enduring children's author with reprehensible views—is quite simple: After his parents die in a tragic accident, a young boy goes to live with his grandmother, who is an expert on witches, having encountered one in her youth. They go to a fancy seaside hotel where they unwittingly stumble into a convention of witches led by the terrifying Grand High Witch. There, the boy learns of the witches' evil plan to turn children into mice to fully eradicate them. He's caught snooping, turned into a rodent, and then must find a way to stop their nefarious acts. Zemeckis and his co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo Del Toro transpose the action from England to 1968 Alabama, a fascinating idea that is never really fully explored. The 2020 Witches feels like very much a movie for youngsters, with the corny jokes to match.
Roeg, who died in 2018, wasn't exactly known for children's fare when he took the gig directing The Witches, though he was an excellent practitioner of exceedingly disturbing material, like Don't Look Now, the 1973 film starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland about a grieving couple haunted in Venice based on a Daphne du Maurier piece.
Perhaps the greatest asset to Roeg's Witches is the remarkable puppetry and effects work of Jim Henson and his company. When Anjelica Huston's Grand High Witch removes her wig and mask and unveils her true visage, her skin is coated in a melange of boils and warts. Her body slumps and dress wrinkles. (In Zemeckis' version, Hathaway remains generally beautiful, just with pointed teeth, a bald head, and a skin-tight garment adorned with a hissing snake.) Huston's followers are sycophantic, and their bodies appear to be rotting. They are unsightly, and Roeg and his cinematographer Harvey Morrison shoot them in close-ups that highlight their grotesqueness. The witches feel like they are constantly encroaching on you, invading your space, getting under your skin.
Huston's performance is renowned for its vampy splendor, but it's oddly subtle at the same time. Huston knows she can convey a lot with a quick glance or a swish of her hips. It's the same way that Roeg's direction is both filled with little askew flourishes but never telegraphs that much. It just allows the entire situation to be deeply weird.
Bizarrely, Roeg's film has a happy ending that Dahl hated. In his version, the Grand High Witch's assistant goes rogue, turns good, and ends up transforming the protagonist back into a boy. Though a much cheerier film overall, Zemeckis' The Witches sticks with Dahl's ending in which the boy accepts his fate as a mouse, but it also concludes with Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," which undercuts any of the original dread. It all just goes to show, when it comes to scaring kids and adults alike, tone counts for more than anything.
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