Film discussion

Throwback 30: The Witches Of Eastwick

Thirty years on, Baz Greenland looks back at 1987 movie The Witches Of Eastwick...

Remember when Cher made movies, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon were sexy leading ladies and Jack Nicholson ruled Hollywood? That time was 1987 and the film was The Witches Of Eastwick. Based on John Updike’s 1984 novel and directed by George Miller, this piece of 80’s nostalgia is thirty years old this month.

I saw this film several times back in the late 90s and early 2000s and, fuelled with nostalgia, decided to give it a rewatch recently. It’s a film that holds up surprisingly well, with great performances from all involved (yes even Cher isn’t too bad at the old acting lark). But what really struck me was just how dark it is at times. Yes, Miller plays up the comedy well but it’s black humour at its best and Jack Nicholson’s charismatically evil Daryl Van Horne is a nasty piece of work under that charming exterior.

It has some creepy moments too (Veronica Cartwright’s Felicia and her cherry stone vomit scene being particularly nasty), but it all bubbles along under the surface. Is it deserving of an 18 rating? Perhaps, but I’m sure I’ve seen 15 certificates that have been just as dark.

The three female leads fulfil their roles well. Cher’s Alexandra is the no nonsense widow with a naughty side (her booby clay models) and is very much the matriarch of the group. Michelle Pfeiffer, the young divorcee mother of who knows how many kids, is the sweet and innocent one of the group and suffers the most too. Susan Sarandon probably has the most fun though, transforming from uptight school music teacher to sexy extrovert complete with alluring low cut dresses and big hair.

Do their respective romances with Nicholson’s Van Horne work? Not always successfully, though I like how Alexandra acknowledges how repulsive he is when he tries to seduce her. Sarandon’s Jane has the strongest connection but then she is the most repressed of the three women and the one most significantly changed by her experiences. There isn’t much of a connection with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Sukie but again, Nicholson’s charm sells it even when there isn’t much of a natural story there.

The Witches Of Eastwick also has a cracking score by John Williams. It’s not a film you’d probably associate with the all time great that composed for the likes of SupermanIndiana Jones and Star Wars. But his score is playful, atmospheric and perfectly captures the sinister undertones of this Rhode Island town that has become the home of the devil himself.

When things really start to unravel and the three witches realise just what they have got themselves into, Miller really has fun as a director. After traumatizing puritanical Felicia for half a film, the scene where she vomits up half consumed cherries is a repulsive The Exorcist pastiche, capped by a terrifically dark moment where poor put upon husband Clyde (Richard Jenkins) finally snaps and bludgeons her to death. Van Horne punishing Sukie for leaving him is another nasty twist; the scene where he tears rotten tomatoes in his hands and she withers in pain is harrowing to watch. This is a much darker film than I remembered.

Yes the ending is delightfully over the top, but it is terrifically fun. As Alexandra, Sukie and Jane pretend to return to Van Horne with open arms, they hatch a plan to dispose of the devil once and for all. Using voodoo-style witchcraft to jab a wax model of Van Horne with pins is a great bit of revenge for poor Sukie and the covering of feathers, which he coughs up in the street is hilarious. The scene in the church as he vomits over the poor parishioner is another gruesome moment and Nicholson’s ability to look truly demonic is chilling.

There is a tongue in cheek to the film that stops it getting too dark, yet shot through with a certain level of horror that keeps it from being too light either. George Miller captures the balance between the two styles well and gets the best out of his cast, even if the central, twisted romances that form the witches’ connection with the devil aren’t terribly convincing at times.

It’s not Nicholson, Pfeiffer or Sarandon’s best film by far but is is delightfully dark and fun at times and it stands up well over time. In the modern age where the supernatural is a mainstream of TV and film, The Witches Of Eastwick is a curious beast but well worth a look again thirty years on.

Have you seen The Witches of Eastwick? Let us know what you think of the movie.

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