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John Updike's truly wicked novel becomes a less disturbing but still edgy horror comedy in The Witches of Eastwick, an "A Ticket" Hollywood production with top stars and top creative talent in every department. Made near the end of Jack Nicholson's run as a handsome leading man -- he was just beginning to lose his shape, and his devilish features were starting to droop -- this eccentric show makes the most of the actor's irreverent personality. He'd use some of the mannerisms found here for his Joker in Tim Burton's first Batman movie.
Nicholson becomes the central focus for three attractive women in the Rhode Island town of Eastwick. All have lost their mates, by death, divorce and desertion, and are soon ensnared in the seductive charms of newcomer Daryl Van Horne, a mysterious millionaire who rents a fabulous mansion outside of town. Sculptress Alexandra (Cher), music teacher Jane (Susan Sarandon) and journalist Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) succumb individually, then willingly join Daryl's harem ... what he calls a family. Jane's heavy-breathing seduction by musical instrument is particularly impressive.
The ladies aren't at all bothered by Daryl's apparent magical powers, which include enabling his paramours to hover in the air, made buoyant by the lightness of gaiety (shades of Mary Poppins, there). The girls accept this magic as part of the general erotic spell engendered by the coarse but honest Daryl, who is privvy to erotic secrets that will inspire total loyalty from any given female. The only sour note comes from the respectable Felicia Alden (Veronica Cartwright). Unbalanced by complications from a broken leg, Felicia goes all "17th century" on the events transpiring up at Van Horne's mansion, and is thrown into fits of mania denouncing sin and sexual debauchery. Jane feels the heat of local disapproval at the grocery store ... the whole town considers Jane, Sukie and Alexandra to be whores. Sukie and Jane lose their jobs.
Of course, Felicia's puritan delirium doesn't mean that she isn't dead-on correct. The Witches of Eastwick is structured almost like a gothic horror tale, with a feminist twist. Daryl conquers his women by appealing to their will to power and sexual freedom. Like Vincent Price in a Roger Corman Poe film, he takes over the house on the hill and casts a shadow of "evil" over the community, in this case, a shadow of rampant sexuality. The three women are basically "Brides of Dracula", dedicated not to the Devil's will but to the unfettered masculine prerogative.
The movie also makes fun of the possession scenario from The Exorcist, namely the grotesque vomiting scenes. These are made somewhat less disgusting by being magically triggered and involving cherry pits. Veronica Cartwright surely doesn't get her due for what is a sensational performance -- her deranged biddy remains sympathetic throughout. If you want to get moral about the movie, the carousing of our three glamorous "Brides of Daryl" is directly responsible for Felicia's unjust fate.
The movie tames the tone of Updike's novel just enough to make The Witches of Eastwick acceptable as a horror comedy, instead of just plain horrible. In the book the women are quite aware that they're witches (instead of discovering an untapped witchy talent) and the final act is much darker in all respects. Out-and-out Evil takes an active role, in contrast with the film's fairly light-hearted War Between Supernatural Men and Women. The girls suddenly pull out Daryl's book of sorcery and combine forces to give him a dose of his own medicine. That's good for a little fun, although the movie's quasi- Rosemary's Baby conclusion tilts the mood back toward the dark side.
That's what the film is about on its face, but it's really a chance to see three top female actresses spar with bad-boy Jack. With all the big personalities involved, one can imagine the on-set power struggles. Jack Nicholson is known to dominate all but the strongest directors, and Cher reportedly eats them alive -- I personally saw the very promising, touching movie Mermaids reduced to a stupid comedy with Cher bopping to a lot of canned pop songs. Known primarily as the maker of Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Australian director George Miller is said to have waged most of his battles with the high-powered producers Neil Canton, Peter Guber and Jon Peters (now there's an unholy trio). Miller must have found a way to make everyone happy, as The Witches of Eastwick gives all four big stars their due, and more. Jack Nicholson doesn't hog all the good close-ups. Considering his relatively dumpy appearance, he must work his diabolical charm to the hilt to stay the sexual center of attention for these dames. The Witches of Eastwick is indicative of a big switch in the eighties, when the sexual fantasies in the movies (in general terms) stopped centering on the male point of view and switched over to female concerns. In this picture, the girls talk as much about male sex organs as Jack does.
What can't be overlooked is the fact that The Witches of Eastwick is a vacation for the eyes. Designer Polly Platt makes Eastwick and environs a luxurious experience. The first scene's two or three establishing shots of the town will lull anybody into cozy feelings of comfort and harmony. Cher's mid-river house and Nicholson's gigantic mansion (aided by special effects) are never less than soothing sights. Some of the mansion interiors, especially the dreamy indoor pool area, are the equal of anything that came out of Hollywood in the Golden Age. It's all glamorized and artificial but it fits the stylized storyline and seems perfectly right. If it's possible to "direct" a movie through set design and art direction, Ms. Platt knows how to do it.
I wonder who came up with one of the final "versions" of Daryl Van Horne, when he's glimpsed only for a moment as an obscene, somewhat indescribable botanical specimen. The disturbing "thing" looks as if it once grew in the Garden of Eden.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Witches of Eastwick is a marvelously good HD transfer that will impress anybody with the film's beautiful production values. Original release prints of the film were in 70mm. John William's quirky main theme only hints at the diabolical intent of the story, but we like it anyway -- it saw heavy use recycled in innumerable film trailers thereafter.
The Witches of Eastwick comes on a double bill with Practical Magic, a silly but engaging witchy-poo romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Witchcraft is peachy and a community will accept it if the witches in question are perky and loveable babes. I do have to say that the curse on the young women is an appealing problem to overcome -- whoever they fall in love with, dies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Witches of Eastwick Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.