When watching Robert Zemeckis’ reimagining of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story, it’s hard not to compare it to Nicolas Roeg’s now iconic 1990 film. Roeg’s cinematic interpretation, which saw Angelica Huston take centre stage as the Grand High Witch, found immediate favour with critics and has since been immortalised as a cult classic.
Zemeckis’ adaptation is just as dark and twisted (and arguably more terrifying thanks to advances in special effects) but it falls into the same trap that plagues many Hollywood remakes – it struggles to justify its own existence. The Witches tells the same story we saw in 1990, only with higher quality filming techniques, which is what you’d expect after 30 years. Admittedly, it’s hard to be original when working from a specific text, but Zemeckis’ film doesn’t do quite enough reinvention to push it out of the shadow of Roeg’s 1990 effort. As a result, this remake ends up feeling somewhat unnecessary.
It’s needless existence aside; The Witches shapes up to be a fairly enjoyable film. Unlike the book, which takes place across England and Norway, Zemeckis shifts his interpretation to Alabama, USA. We open on Charlie (played by newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), a young boy who is sent to live with his grandma after being orphaned in a car crash. After a spooky encounter with a witch at a local grocery store, Charlie’s grandma whisks the two of them away to a fancy seaside hotel, hoping to hide her grandson there from the children-hating witches of the world. Ironically, it’s at that very hotel that the witches are hosting their annual get together, led by the Grand High Witch herself.
This version sees Anne Hathaway don the long gloves and Eastern European accent as she transforms into the nefarious Grand High Witch, a role she clearly has fun with. Indeed, this really feels like her film. She revels in the wickedness of her character, exuding menace with every line. Like Angelica Huston before her, Hathaway plays the Grand High Witch with dark, campy humour. It’s thrilling to watch. Her performance alone would be chilling, but in a puzzling creative choice, Zemeckis piles on the CGI and makes her far more terrifying than she needs to be. Hathaway is given a grotesque smile that stretches from ear to ear with a split snake’s tongue and fang-like teeth. The Witches is branded as a children’s film, yet Zemeckis makes Hathaway look like a horrifying hybrid of The Joker and Pennywise the Clown.
Octavia Spencer, as Charlie’s wholesome grandma, is a perfect foil to Hathaway’s pantomime villain, bringing a welcome dose of warmth to the story. Stanley Tucci on the other hand feels criminally underused as the finicky hotel manager, Stringer. Despite some terrifying visual which will likely keep many children awake in time for Halloween, Zemeckis carries the film to its conclusion in a satisfying and enjoyable manner. Exciting chases and fun-filled plotting, set to a killer 80s-inspired soundtrack, drives the film towards its final act, which doesn’t disappoint.
Does this adaptation live up to the legacy of its predecessor? Probably not. Is it still a delightfully terrifying film worthy of a watch? Absolutely.
The Witches is available on demand from iTunes, Amazon Prime and the Google Play store from today.