The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
As a child of the 90’s, Nicholas Roeg’s The Witches was staple viewing. And, like many of my peers, despite its packaging as a children's film, it was undoubtedly one of the most disturbing features I had witnessed. To this day it still holds up as an incredibly unnerving fantasy film, with a lot of its horrific remembrance owed to the performance of Anjelica Houston. As the Grand High Witch at the centre of the story she was terrifying, committed, and just camp enough. Anyone having to follow in her footsteps would have to be a game actress, and though the likes of Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) made perfect sense from a creative point of view (Zemeckis serving as director, del Toro as producer, and the two collaborating on the screenplay), Anne Hathaway was much less obvious as the story’s central villain. Having proven detractors wrong in the past (the choice to cast her as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises was initially met with hesitation) there was every bit the possibility that her own camp sensibilities could be perfectly matched to the unhinged character, and surely the aforementioned talent on board, not to mention the likes of Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci sharing the screen too, would result in a film worthy on its own accord…right?
Given how much Robert Zemeckis has utilised special effects and the fantasy genre throughout his career - Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, and The Polar Express just as prime examples - something like Roald Dahl’s The Witches should feel perfectly in tune with his aesthetic. But there’s working with effects and there’s letting effects do the work, and here it really feels like Zemeckis worked under the impression that a heft of CGI and reliable performers would be enough to carry the narrative over the line. There’s no personality to how we see this story, and the darkness that laced both the original novel and the 1990 film has been practically wiped clean, another odd choice given Zemeckis’ past works have often thrived when adopting a more sinister nature.
Moving from the Norwegian/UK-based setting of the novel and original film, this particular story moves its ghoulish action to 1960’s Alabama. To this film’s credit it’s a little more faithful to the novel - something author Dahl particularly disliked about the original film was its forced happy ending - but whatever dark inclinations the story hold feel undone by the overall sweetness Zemeckis and del Toro (and co-writer Kenya Barris) opt to inject. The background information pertaining to the witches and their diabolical nature feel far more muted here, with this particular imagining hoping cute CGI mice (well, as cute as they can be) and an unleashed Hathaway will mask the fact that the story we’ve experienced before hasn’t been given much of a fresh coating.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Taking a film like this on its own merits is the best way to approach, as trying to compare Houston’s embodiment of The Grand High Witch to what Hathaway does is entirely unfair. That being said, even if this was the first time we were seeing The Witches in a filmic capacity, Hathaway’s performance earns its criticisms. An actress who already is at something of a disadvantage - she still hasn’t seemed to entirely have won her detractors over following the swarm of hate she received during her Les Miserables awards run - and hasn’t been making good on her Oscar winning status as of late (the critically slaughtered trio of The Hustle, Serenity and The Last Thing He Wanted not proving the smartest of runs), she doesn’t feel seasoned enough to portray a witch in such power. A lot of her performance rides on the CGI effects applied to her face and the fact that she as an exaggerated, unplaceable European accent. It’s undeniable that Hathaway’s having so much fun with the role - I’ll admit to giggling a few times at her delivery or facial reactions - but the fun Houston had was meshed with a genuine terror, something Hathaway sadly never conjures. Outside of Hathaway, Octavia Spencer makes for a fine adversary as Agatha, though she lays on the Southern righteousness a bit too thick at times, and Stanley Tucci further proves his good value as a hotel manager having to contend with the bizarreness of the coven of witches he’s unknowingly dealing with. The one thing this film improves on casting-wise from its 1990 counterpart is having young Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as antagonist Charlie, the child actor proving far more natural and less whiny than that of Jason Fisher’s Luke.
When Mirrored To The 1990 Original, It Fails.
THE WITCHES (2020)
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
There’s no music that particularly stands out, but the accompanying score proves satisfactory all the same. The unified clicking of the witches’ shoes as they march in rhythm and the intensity built around their breed are nice additives, managing to maintain more a sense of dread than the characters manage on their own.
As stated, trying to look at the 2020 The Witches on its own merits is a difficult process. When mirrored to the 1990 original, it fails. As its own fantasy film, it’s just not that exciting, not to mention overly explained to the point of annoyance. Hathaway’s performance will either make or break it for a lot of audiences, many of whom I assume will have fond memories of the original too. Brand new viewers may find mild pleasure in it, but this certainly won’t be standing the test of time and earn cult status in the process.
THE WITCHES - Now Streaming On HBO MAX
It’s still a baffling shame that in 2020 CGI effects can appear so obvious. The practicality of the original film’s designs on the witches was horrific - I think the imagery of Anjelica Houston removing her face will stay with many of us - and though I understand the mentality of “If we can afford special effects, why not use them?”, the believability behind it is another issue entirely. Hathaway’s clawed hands and feet, her extended nostrils, and wide, demon-like mouth are all computer trickery which take us out of the terror she's meant to evoke (young children may be more inclined to be affected). Similarly, the generated effect of the children in mice form and even Hathaway’s cat are digital creations that fail to immerse us in any sort of fantastical reality. Perhaps the most inexcusable use though, i.e. lazy, is when the mother of one of the children transformed into a mouse comes face to face with her son’s new animalistic form and responds with a scream, a scream that appears to come from a CGI-enhanced mouth. Yep, can’t get your actor to scream, just create them a mouth. Inexcusable.