The Witches of Eastwick

(George Miller, USA, 1987)


The Witches of Eastwick, based on John Updike's novel, has nothing to do with naturalism. Nor does it have much to do with modern horror; in fact, it goes right back to the '40s for its initial whimsical tone and its narrative pretext of witches lurking (unknowingly even to themselves) in an American small town.

It plays, for the most part, neither in the David Cronenberg arena of body-horror nor in the David Lynch arena of dark, subterranean depths; it's more interested in cute things like magic rather than gore or terror. (This is one reason why it went on to succeed as a theatre piece.)

In its plotting and dramatic effects, The Witches of Eastwick is in fact even literary (in a sense), and extremely discreet; George Miller here forsaking the state-of-the-art virtuosity on which he rode to fame in the Mad Max movies. (It was not, as it happens, a pleasant production experience for Miller within the American system, and it strengthened his commitment to controlling the creative process on ensuing projects.)

But Witches is a film that slowly works its wonder on a viewer. What it has going for it is a very well-developed idea which cuts about a dozen ways.

The story plays out the full sexual phantasm of the battle between men and women, a supernatural struggle in which each gender helps to hallucinate the Other as Monster.

In the eyes of this female trio (played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer), their collective object of desire (Jack Nicholson, perfectly cast) is both the Ideal Man who lives to fulfil their wishes, and the petulant little Boy-Monster who makes their world Hell.

In his eyes, these women are both Divine, and God's crime against the male race – at one point compared with something that sounds like AIDS ("We've got to build up our immune system!").

The film volleys so fast between the masculine and feminine viewpoints on this sex-war that the audience cannot ever settle the score in either direction; it leaves you dizzy with speculative possibilities.

Witches, like so many pop films, manages to touch just the right collective nerve: releasing mass fear and mass desire at the same time, with the same gesture. It's a buzz film, one perhaps more exciting to talk about and recommend to friends than to actually watch.

But, simply as a cultural event, it should not be missed. And one thing is certain: The Witches of Eastwick was rich enough to call forth one of the greatest essays in the history of film criticism, Raymond Durgnat's "Up Jumped the Devil or, The Jack in Pandora's Box", in Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 644 (September 1987).

MORE Miller: Babe, Lorenzo's Oil

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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