Naming a remake that’s better than the original is like playing a game of needles and haystacks. In the new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, the color cinematography capturing coastal England and France is equal to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 black and white version. But Armie Hammer, a sun-drenched demigod in Call Me By Your Name (2017), can only shout to express his inner turmoil. Laurence Olivier in the same role casts out thunderstorms of anguish by simply narrowing his eyes. Lily James simpers as naturally as Joan Fontaine does, but the feeling of emotional rot and rottenness is washed away by the sumptuous waves of technicolor.
Something similar happens with Robert Zemeckis’ update of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Zemeckis is responsible for amping up a certain kind of Hollywood too-muchness. He directed all of the Back to the Future’s, The Polar Express and Welcome to Marwen. His team of pioneering special effects artists enable his need for spectacle over more contemplative themes. Cast Away, Contact, and Flight represent a middle ground in his oeuvre. With The Witches though, Zemeckis is back to overdoing it.
Nicolas Roeg directed the 1990 original, starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. Zemeckis casts Anne Hathaway in the same role but smothers her hyperbolic efforts in CGI. Hathaway smartly decides not to compete with Huston’s raging Teutonic accent. She instead opts for something Scandinavian that’s softer and sillier. The effect is deliberately comic. Huston is a snarling black cat compared to Hathaway’s slightly cross-eyed Siamese. That is until Zemeckis intervenes and transforms her into a female Joker.
For the first 20 minutes of The Witches, the director grounds the film in Grandma’s (Octavia Spencer) parlor. Her grandson (Jahzir Bruno) is orphaned in the opening scene. He’s adjusting to not having parents and his recent move to her small Southern town. Zemeckis saturates the lighting in Grandma’s house to heighten the visual effects of the set design and the costumes. The world he creates there exists halfway between realism and a cartoon. Blemishes, cracks and other imperfections are erased to make way for bright yellows, blues, and greens.
When the grandson encounters his first witch at the local five-and-dime, Grandma describes their peculiar, unnerving qualities to him. Apart from having stubbed feet and fewer fingers than humans, witches’ mouths can open as wide as a snake’s. To emphasize this characteristic on Hathaway’s face, the makeup artist traces a faint line up across her jawline. When the Grand High Witch later chases after the grandson, the CGI effects actually enlarge those jaws. Hathaway isn’t just a serpent in human form. In her demented fury to rid the world of children, she summons up an impression of any number of recent screen versions of Batman’s chief nemesis.
Her transformation embodies Zemeckis’ penchant for pyrotechnical overkill. Although George Miller directed The Witches of Eastwick (1987), both filmmakers wreck their movies in the same way — with climactic scenes overrun by animated, overwrought monsters. What begins as a portrait of a family adjusting to loss devolves into a horror story featuring an unnatural, bestial menace.
Children watching the movie will undoubtedly be terrified by the Grand High Witch’s elongated features and her snapping incisors. But 30 years on, I still remember that sinking feeling when Huston removed her wig and peeled off her prosthetic face. She and her coven had help from Jim Henson’s puppetry. But the evil those masks summoned up felt organic, connected to their ensorceled flesh. I believed that Huston’s witch would rid the planet of children without a second thought. In this remake, I believed in the relationship between the Grandmother and her grandson until Zemeckis overwhelmed them with his gadgets and hi-tech wizardry.
The Witches is now streaming on HBO Max.