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The Witches of Eastwick

***
1987

‘a dispatch from a war between men and women’

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, 1987, (c) Warner Brothers

One can see why this adaptation of John Updike’s novel was developed for Bill Murray; post Ghostbusters, the supernatural comedy genre was booming, even if the notoriously reluctant Murray was reluctant to play his part. Instead, Jack Nicholson steps up to play Daryl, the horny devil who arrives at a small New England township and tangles with three witches, played by Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s a remarkable cast, top-drawer Hollywood, yet The Witches of Eastwick feels like its reputation has been tarnished by the years, no sequels, no revamps, and a product too riddled with sexual talk and nasty effects to gain traction with a tv audience.

Back in 1987, I hated this movie. For all the big production values of George Miller’s film, I simply didn’t get what it was about. If Daryl is the Devil, then he’s got a limited scope for his black arts; moving to a new house and seducing the locals seems to be all that’s on his mind. The witches fight back with supernatural powers, but what are the stakes here? And if this is a comedy, and it’s very broadly played, where are the laughs?

Returning to Miller’s film on Amazon Prime, The Witches of Eastwick has more to commend it, notably a Harry Potter-lite score from John Williams, an impressive stunt sequence in which the witches use voodoo-pins to tear Daryl through the roof of his speeding Mercedes, and a satirical feel for the mores of small-town life. Of course, it’s far broader than the novel, and excludes the darker elements in favour of a Death Becomes Her special-effects romp, but for all the childish energy, there’s an adult text trying to burst through the vomit.

But what does it mean? Rather than horror, this seems to be a dispatch from a war between men and women, accentuating the chauvinism of masculinity and banishing it via the home-spun witchery of the women. That message doesn’t quite sit right with Updike’s intent, but if you can take pleasure from watching the four mega-stars play an outlandish tennis match, there’s more here to enjoy for adults than thrill-seeking teens like myself circa 1987.

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  1. I’m glad you mentioned the vomit, because that, for me, crystallized the disgustingness of this film. My review was not positive. This film also made me seriously ponder why Jack Nicholson, who is homely by objective standards, is considered such a sex symbol. His abilities in the film seemed somewhat of a metaphor for his own escapades in real life. Apparently, devilishness is sexy in and of itself.

    • Both points chime with me. I felt that they deliberately made Nicholson look awful here, and it’s a bit of a mystery why the girls adore him. And I could have done without all the throwing up, when I first saw it, that element made me feel physically sick!

  2. Ironically, I just watched Witches of Eastwick not that long ago. My review arrives in a matter of days. So I’ll hold off on talking about it until then. All I’ll say now is that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.

    • Look forward to reading your review as ever; either this film has improved a lot since 1989, or I’ve changed, but it seemed a much more cohesive film when I watched it last month that I remembered or imagined.

  3. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Nicholson in the role! I perfectly loved him in it and it was a film I was able to enjoy with my mom! At the time, as I recall, I was much more interested in the Kevin Costner Elliot Ness revival going on simultaneously.

    • You mom must be pretty cool. Nicholson seems to be deliberately scruffy in this, but at the time, like you, I was more up for a heroic, Costner-type hero like in The Untouchables. My mom liked that one, think Witches would have been too weird for her!

  4. How wonderful, had just rewatched the blackish satire movie, and didn’t know Murray was supposed to play Jack’s part! I had also read both of Updikes books, Witches and Widows of Eastwick. Lots of major differences. I think the producer concentrated on lst 1/2 of the lst book when writing screenplay. I remember folks calling themselves witches didn’t like the movie. I sat on the fence, but enjoyed the cauldron into which went damn Puritans/attitudes, a minor horny demon, and 3 frustrated women, plus a dash of Fellini and a pinch of Henry James? Updike seemed at odds with women. They did all the killing and suffering. Cast of characters was excellent!

    • Absolutely, Richard Jenkins and Veronica Cartwright both have great roles in this. I think you’re right, Updike has a problem with the female role, and that’s reflected in the way the witches are treated. They react with spite to a male character who would normally be the villian, but is somehow the hero, or at least anti-hero here. Wish I’d thougt of the cauldron line when I write this review, thanks as always for the comment. Probably for the best that Murray didn’t take this role; Jack has a lot of fun, and it’s an entertaining package for sure.

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