The Witches

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

REVIEWED: 11-02-98

When Shannon Doherty, Alyssa Milano, Nicole Kidman, and Sandra Bullock are all simultaneously playing witches, you know the craft's gone mainstream. The TV show Charmed, whose pilot aired a couple of weeks ago, the film Practical Magic, which recently opened, and of course the enduring TV show (based on the Archie comic character) Sabrina the Teenage Witch have much in common. For one thing, there are no warts, no pointy hats, no melting green hags. Nor are there Bewitched-style housewives using their infinite power to clean the house quickly. The witches of the Nineties are by and large pretty young things whose supernatural powers, while sometimes troublesome, are a source of strength and glee. These days it's all one big "Hail to the ditzily powerful female!"

This is not entirely new. The sexy-witch genre started long ago, before even Elvira, with movies like Veronica Lake's I Married a Witch and Kim Novak's Bell, Book and Candle. Even from these far from humble beginnings, the genre has evolved, approaching in recent years something of an art form. The many witch movies of the past 10 years display a vast spectrum of witchiness. Three standouts of the decade are Teen Witch, The Craft, and The Witches. The differences between the witches depicted in each just go to show how many options are available for the witchy gal of our era.

High school and sorcery are a perfect match, probably because so many things about high school cry out for hexing. In The Craft, our heroine is the good girl who's new in town. She immediately falls in with a crowd of three, known around school as "the Bitches of Eastwick." It becomes clear that the designation is apt when the clique starts "calling the four corners" and wreaking magical havoc in their Limited and Benetton outfits (product placements abound). Only the sympathetic character is not corrupted by power, so a showdown between the forces of good and forces of evil (think supernatural catfight) inevitably ensues. While this could have been a kick-ass girl-bonding movie, it degenerates pretty quickly into hair-pulling and sniping. The Craft also interestingly enough turns the Goddess of Wicca into a male deity, whom the girls lustily describe as "filling them up." Moral: Even witches are not immune to teensploitation.

Teen Witch, Sabrina's 1980's prototype, is way more inspiring, however hokey it is. This movie is so Eighties it hurts, with everything from white boys rapping up a storm in the school hallway to cheerleaders jiggle-dancing in the locker room to the hysterical song "I Like Boys." For retrophiles, it doesn't get any better than this. This is a world in which tutu skirts are the height of fashion, there's a Madonna clone named "Shana," and reference is made to Punky Brewster. It is also a world in which a newly 16-year-old Louise Miller, nerd extraordinaire, finds out she is a witch.

From frumpy to fabulous, our heroine wastes no time working her magic on everyone from the sadistic English teacher Mr. Weaver to Brad, the studly football hero. Granted, the movie has the predictable feel of a sitcom. Between the dearth of character actors, the valuable lessons learned, and the textbook backfiring of good intentions, some may scoff. They would, however, be in the wrong, for this is a masterpiece of both the teen and witch genres. Louise the nerd, bubbling over with sexual energy and social ambition, becomes cool. Louise the witch, erratically powerful, learns how to rightly use her strength. Teen Witch is an all-around delicious flick, both despite and because of the afterschool special quality of its message.

If, on the other hand, you're going for old school scary, there's no contest. Based on a Roald Dahl book, Nicholas Roeg's The Witches is a film surprisingly faithful to the creepiness of the original. A recently orphaned boy encounters the Grand High Witch (played by a slinky, ice queeny Anjelica Huston) while on vacation with his grandmother. This is one of those films that is a children's movie only in theory. In reality, you'd be better off celebrating Halloween by reading your kids the original Grimm's Fairy Tales (the ones about beautiful maidens being decapitated) than showing them this. Despite a few child-appropriate moments, the overall scenario (witches are everywhere and all they want to do is kill children in awful ways) may prove to be too traumatic. Anjelica Huston's bloodthirsty sexiness, however, increases the film's appeal for the older set. It also shares with the aforementioned teenybopper witch movies a plot that centers around cute chicks wielding colossal power. At home, with a TV projecting this archetype, isn't at all a bad way to celebrate the holidays.

--Ada Calhoun

Capsule Reviews
The Witches

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