“It’s WOMEN who are the source… the only power. Nature, birth, rebirth. Cliche? Cliche… sure… but true.” - Darryl Van Horne
Directed in 1987 by George Miller, The Witches of Eastwick has become a classic in the witch movie “genre” and a staple in Halloween lineups. It’s a quasi comedy – quasi horror – quasi woman’s film. It has elements of all three genres that leave you wondering what you just watched. Generally, the film was a success grossing over 63 million dollars, according to IMDB records.
The Witches of Eastwick is based on John Updike’s novel of the same title which was published in 1984. I read the book many years ago. Unfortunately, I do not remember enough details to make a a stab at a comparison in the treatment of the story or the witches. Movies have a way of drowning out the written word.
However, in 1984, Margaret Atwood wrote a New York Times Book review of Updike’s work. Of the witches in the novel, Atwood writes:
These are not 1980′s Womanpower witches. They aren’t at all interested in healing the earth, communing with the Great Goddess, or gaining Power- within (as opposed to Power-over). These are bad Witches, and Power-within, as far as they are concerned, is no good at all unless you can zap somebody with it. They are spiritual descendants of the 17th-century New England strain and go in for sabbats, sticking pins in wax images, kissing the Devil’s backside and phallus worship; this latter though – since it is Updike – is qualified worship. The Great Goddess is present only in the form of Nature itself, or, in this book, Nature herself, with which they, both as women and as witches, are supposed to have special affinities. Nature, however, is far from Wordsworth’s big motherly breast. She, or it, is red in tooth, claw and cancer cell, at best lovely and cruel, at worst merely cruel. ”Nature kills constantly, and we call her beautiful.
While my memory, or lack thereof, prevents me from corroborating Atwood’s assessment, I do remember the book was a negotiation of woman’s power and the feminist movement. While the film possesses some of these qualities, it fails to capture the nuances that suggest a satire, social commentary or anything of real substance. In that way, the 1987 movie is just the “cliff notes” to Updike’s novel. Perhaps not even that.
The Witches of Eastwick opens with a ariel shot of a quaint New England town. At center is a picture-perfect white church with a surrounding town green. This sets the stage for two main things: Witches and a disruption of a status quo. The director is saying “Here’s ‘perfect’ … now watch us mess it up!” The opening shot sets the standard for “normal” by which to compare what isn’t. Read Eastwick as “Eden” and the witches as Eve’s.
The three witches, played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, are busy divorcees with jobs, families, and a community life. These are three very strong women. However, they are all lonely for one thing – a man. “Why do we always wind up talking about them?” they asked. Through that weakness and their individual insecurities, Darryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), or the Devil, is able to seduce each of them into a new life. As they embrace their perceived “freedoms,” the women become bolder and their clothes become darker and more daring. Their hair gets bigger and curlier!
Despite all of these supernatural goings-on, I’m not really ready to claim these women are witches. In this film, all magic is derived from Satan. Even the final “voodoo-style” spell is taken out of Darryl’s book, Maleficio. While performing it, the women clearly state that they have “no idea” what they are doing or if it worked. Hollywood’s satanic witches usually welcome the evil and hone their new found power. That is not the case here.
As far as innate natural powers, they film only hints at the idea. It never really nurtures this idea or allows the characters to explore it. Witches (real, mythological, Hollywood etc) tend to know that they have a power. Even if they are new to magic, they eventually acknowledge its presence and learn to use it. These three women never openly embrace any personal power. They are totally power dependent, reactionary creatures. Magic is simply a function of the Devil – up until the very end.
There is so much to say about the feminist aspects of this film that trump the witch card. Regardless of these critical aspects, The Witches of Eastwick is fun to watch. Actually it is more than fun. Jack Nicholson gives one of his best performances ever. The role was absolutely made for him. In the film he was able showcase his acting lunacy and the clever maneuvering of the famous eyebrows. If you see nothing else, watch the church scene in which Darryl breaks down into a rant questioning the Genesis story:
Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman? Huh? No shit. I really wanna know. Or do you think it was another one of His minor mistakes like tidal waves, earthquakes, FLOODS? You think women are like that? S’matter? You don’t think God makes mistakes? Of course He does. We ALL make mistakes. Of course, when WE make mistakes they call it evil. When GOD makes mistakes, they call it… nature. So whaddya think? Women… a mistake… or DID HE DO IT TO US ON PURPOSE?
Despite the far-fetched and anti-climatic ending, The Witches of Eastwick is an entertaining movie with a great cast, a solid narrative and a few laughs. Despite some plot holes, the movie moves along smoothly and is never boring. If you can stomach big hair, rotary phones and tube televisions, this film is a witchy winner.
Day #1: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Day #2: Haxan
Day #3: The Princess and the Frog
Day #4: City of the Dead
Day #5: Beautiful Creatures
Day #6: The Witches
Day #7: Wicked
Day #8: Bell Book & Candle
Day #9: American Horror Story: Coven
Day #10: Black Death (Guest Reviewer: John W. Morehead)
Day #11: Witches of East End
Day #12: Nightmare Before Christmas
Day #13: Scooby Doo: The Witch’s Ghost
Day #14: Hocus Pocus
Day #15: The Wiz
Day #16: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Day #17: Wicker Man (Guest Reviewer: Link)