My initial reaction to seeing that Robert Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, had made a remake of The Witches ultimately was: why? To preface this question/outrage I would like to confess my deep-rooted love for the original Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, a film that stirred within me an irrational fear that to this day I have not been able to completely undo.
Unmatched in fear by any other, I was convinced that any woman I met was a witch, including my own mother. On top of that, the mystery of if my crush on Anjelica Huston, the Grand High Witch herself, was out of attraction or terror has never been made resolutely clear. Regardless, I consider the 1990 film one I genuinely wish I could see for the first time again.
With that in mind I saw, briefly, the 2020 remake almost like a chance to do that, and yet, it has only left me questioning Zemeckis. Surely he must be quaking in his boots? When a remake is so faithful to the original it is impossible not to compare the two. That is not to say Anne Hathaway does not deliver a fresh take: her Grand High Witch has comedic moments and, minus the slightly jarring if not confusing accent, she embodies a modernised version of a witch. However, when compared to Huston’s chilly and reserved demeanour, seeing Hathaway levitate in an emotional outburst – a witch-related issue, do not worry! – it becomes juvenile.
The film does integrate on an audible and visual level a taste of the sixties, when a sense of period was something the original lacked. Again, I feel this discounts the remake as the witches in the film feel constrained and dated to the point I cannot imagine them horrifyingly appearing out of nowhere, in any time period, in any part of the world like the 1990s film. (Whilst watching I did have to keep reminding myself that this has been marketed as a child’s film; as a 22-year-old still very much working out my trauma from the original I find it hard not to believe all children’s films aim to scar kids for the rest of their lives…)
Where I feel the modern film’s true downfall lies is in the gloss that is painted over the film. It is filled with Hollywood-esque clichés and sentimentality, albeit delivered by Octavia Spencer who brings a warmth and fun to the film. This doesn’t dismiss the notion that the whole film feels very rushed and the sentimentality, shoved in as an afterthought, makes it insincere. The grittiness of the 1990s film was caused by practical effects brought to a terrifying level. The CGI in Zemeckis’s means we never see Anne Hathaway truly look as ugly and scary as Huston could, and whilst the CGI mice in Zemeckis’s witches are sweet, they are incomparable in charm of those in 1990. CGI doesn’t have to ruin a Roald Dahl adaption – Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is testament to that. Yet, having to witness a mouse voiced by Chris Rock lead children into a war against witches does apparently dull the effect modern technology can have.
I have no doubt that Zemeckis has attempted to recreate some of the bewitching magic of the original. However, he overwhelmingly fails. Stick to the original and give this remake a sad miss.
Illustration: Violet Borkowska