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REVIEW: Anne Hathaway is surprisingly scary in the too-glossy remake of The Witches

By Rory Cashin

October 21, 2020 at 4:59pm


Hathaway's portrayal of the Grand High Witch is guaranteed to kick-start a new generation of nightmares.

Director Robert Zemeckis knows how to traumatise kids. This is the guy who gave us nightmares because of Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so he would seem like a perfect fit for a new adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic kids book.

He's teamed up on the screenplay with Guillermo Del Toro, the man who gave us Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, another genius behind-the-camera addition. Really, the first major concern was in the casting of Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, an actress who just seems a tad too arid to play such an over-the-top role.

And yet, here we are: Hathaway is incredible in this film, truly giving her all, and potentially scary enough to inspire a generation of youngsters into nightmares, but the problem lies with Zemeckis' too glossy direction and Del Toro's surprisingly horror-lite script work.

The story stays pretty much the same: a young orphaned boy (played by Jahzir Bruno, narrated by Chris Rock) is raised by his kooky grandmother (the eternally watchable Octavia Spenser), and they take an impromptu trip to a lavish resort (Alabama here, replacing Cornwall in the 1990 adaptation), only to discover that the hotel is housing a huge witches convention that same weekend. Our hero discovers that the witches have a plot to turn every child in the world into a mouse using a new magic potion, and it is up to him to stop them.

The first adaptation of the story had a creaky, creepy vibe to it, not least in the practical effects put upon Angelica Huston for her performance as the Grand High Witch, as well as the transformation scenes when the kids are force-fed that potion and slowly, painfully turn into mice. Zemeckis, far too much a fan of cutting edge special effects, keeps things too clean and slick for that same sense of creepiness to lurk in, with the tone switching to a fun family adventure, instead of a horror-for-kids. It feels more like The Chamber of Secrets, when it should have felt like The Prisoner of Azkaban, if you get me.

It is only when Hathaway arrives that we get the feeling that Zemeckis and Del Toro are truly letting their freak flag fly. Her strong Scandinavian accent is leans harder into funny than scary, but that is more than made up for with the startlingly unsettling claws on her hands, the Velociraptor-esque single hooked toe, the head full of scabs... and then there is that smile. A new addition to the witches DNA will give you Joker "You wanna know how I got these scars?" flashbacks, but imagine if those scars never fully healed, and instead bust open into a wide mouth of demonic fangs every time she grins or screams.

All of that, paired with Hathaway's never-blinking levels of intensity means that she sends the film skyrocketing upon her introduction 30 minutes in, and then plummeting any time she's not on screen. Not even the great Octavia Spenser, or the fantastic Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager, can keep the interest going when she's not around, and it doesn't help that the central trio of young heroes just aren't particularly charismatic.

Overall, as remakes go, it is far from the worst one ever, and while Hathaway's performance alone does make it worth a watch, the return of The Witches just doesn't have the same magic as the original.

The Witches will be available to watch via Video on Demand platforms from Monday, October 26.

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