October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987).
Starring: Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Jack Nicholson (who is billed first, despite the title).
Synopsis: Three friends in a small New England town find themselves unhappily single and in possession of some ill-defined witchy powers. Commiserating over drinks, Alex (Cher), Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Jane (Susan Sarandon) find themselves describing the kind of man they’d like to have and end up accidentally conjuring Jack Nicholson, in possibly his least attractive role ever of playboy and possible demonic overlord Daryl Van Horne. He seduces the friends one by one and soon has all three under his spell and shacked up with him in his giant mansion. This causes trouble in town, particularly with the newspaper owner ,who is convinced that there’s something evil going on and, proving her point, dies after choking on hundreds of cherry pits as Daryl and the girls are feasting on cherries up at the house. At this point the witches have figured out he’s basically (or literally) the devil and try to break up with him, but he punishes them using the fears they’ve confessed to him and Sukie nearly dies from internal bleeding until they agree to come back to him. They take the first chance they can to make a wax voodoo doll of him and hope to inflict enough pain on him to run him out of town. He returns home intent on punishing them and ultimately they use their powers to fight him off and melt the wax doll, killing or at least banishing him. A year an half later, the women are shown living together in the house with their children (pre-existing ones as well as the sons Jack had impregnated each of them with before he died). The final scene shows Daryl talking to his toddler sons through the creepy wall of TVs he kept in his study before the women switch him off.
Man. The 80’s. Amiright? I mean, we like to think in modern times that we’re edgy, that we do things with movies that are revolutionary and never been done before and groundbreaking. Bullshit. You want an edgy, subversive movie hiding in a mainstream package that’ll make you bleed out your ears? Get thee to the 1980s. Heathers. Weird Science. Return to Oz. These movies, as well as this one, would likely have never made it to a wide release today.
I am honestly not sure what to make of The Witches of Eastwick. Is it a feminist tale about three sex-positive, self determining women who throw off their male oppressor, find their power, and make a successful life for themselves? Or is it cautionary story about the danger of women’s desires and what happens when they neglect their motherly duties and small town morality? I really don’t know. No one else seems quite sure either.
I can’t quite get on board with a truly feminist reading of it, even if it was directed by the same man who brought us Imperator Furiosa. Even though I love the strong female friendships between our main characters and the lack of competition between them, their arrangement with Daryl reads as much more harem then polyamorous coven. They are pretty thoroughly under his spell and while ultimately they do work together to get rid of him, the abuses they suffer at his hands are horrific and they do have basically sexually barter themselves back to him in order to lull him into the sense of security they need in order to defeat him.
The whole thing is squicky, the initial seduction scenes in particular. I mean I’m all for consenting adults (or groups of them) doing as they please and obviously he is offering some to each of the women that they desperately want or need, the way he does it is deceptive and his character is, if not the actual Devil, a pretty close cousin, which makes the consentuality of any of it, even when everyone seems to be having fun, doubtful. If they’d realized his true nature at first they likely would not have been willingly seduced in the first place.
The transformation of Jane from mousy music teacher to the high-octane vamp of the group is also a particularly troubling trope. She goes from being the most conservative of the three to by far the most sexual and Daryl’s biggest fan, even after he’s shown himself to be willing to hurt or kill her friends to get what he wants. I hate the idea that those who have a more restrained or timid personality are always secretly repressed, as well as the concept that they are the ones who will become the most wild and dangerous if they stop being repressed.
The ending also bothers me. It’s nice that their friendship (or possibly romance) of the three women has grown and that they seem to be able to support their families. And there’s nothing wrong with women finding joy and purpose in their children, but the ending implies that this is all they need to be happy, even if they probably are raising the sons of Satan. Personally, after defeating Daryl my next line would have been “Well, who’s up for a round of abortions? I’m buying!” You know, back in the 80’s, when you could get one.
Particularly in the case of Alex and Sukie, who basically neglect their children the whole time Daryl is in town, it feels like they were being punished for stepping away from motherhood (and also that the movie requires women to choose between being good mothers and enjoying themselves) and at the end have been chastened and returned to their proper roles. Jane, who has been struggling with infertility, is shown to be excited about the pregnancy and not the least concerned about the paternity. My problem is not that they keep the pregnancies, but that it’s not even a discussion or a choice when really, it almost certainly would have been. I guess even edgy 80’s movies have their limits.
Jane says at the end that she misses Daryl and the others don’t totally disagree with her, which kind of suggests that even an abusive man who might be the Lord of Darkness is better than no man. I do appreciate that whatever lingering feelings the women may have for him, they are determined to prevent him from influencing their sons from beyond the grave, but it’s a strange ending that provides no answers about what actually happened to Daryl or what’s going to happen to his demon spawn.
What I will say for the movie is that while many of the implications are troubling, it really doesn’t provide any hard-hitting morality tale. It is telling a story. A very weird and disturbing story, and while it has a lot of tropes I find distasteful and outdated (as well as a lot of clothing and hairstyles I find distasteful and outdated) it also doesn’t pass a strict judgement on the women and their ultimate choices. They are allowed to be complicated. They are allowed to want things they know might be bad. They are allowed to be attracted to and care about someone even as they make a stand against him. And they are allowed to be individuals, united in love for each other but distinct in personality and desires.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I chose this movie. I’d never seen it and it was billed as a comedy, so I had in my mind some bit of fluff about a group of witches having adventures with Jack Nicholson as maybe a sort of talent agent? I definitely did not expect this, and I’ll admit I enjoyed watching something that was so strange and unpredictable for much of it (although once it’s clear Daryl needs to go the end is pretty much a foregone conclusion). And there were some very funny moments, although not all of these were intentional. The performances were brilliant on all counts, but a particular nod goes to Veronica Cartwright of Alien fame for her delightfully batshit performance as Felicia, possessed, nutty, and completely right about what’s going on at Daryl’s house.
Quality: 7 derisive Chers out of 10, for the excellent performances and keeping my interest even when it didn’t make any sense.
Entertainment Value: 5 demonic Nicholsons out of 10. The insanity was fun and there were some great moments, but the sexual coercion and physical and emotional abuse kept me from ever fully being able to enjoy it.
Bonus Treehouse of Horror Review: Treehouse of Horror III
I don’t know why I find Bart intoning the names of defunct department stores and top condom brands to summon and then later banish the undead in this episodes final sketch so consistently funny but it’s never failed to make me laugh. I mean sure, condoms, snicker. But the stores… maybe it’s because I actually remember Caldor. In any case, that kind of repeat laugh line is rare in the Simpsons later years but this episode is full of them.
The frame story, a conceit largely now abandoned in recent entries, is the kids (and
Grandpa) telling scary stories at a Halloween party. The first sketch, another Twilight Zone parody, features a cursed shop with cursed Fro-Yo, and a cursed Krusty doll, which is really got it’s switch stuck on “evil”. Although more compliant after being fixed, obviously any animated talking doll is still evil. The second sketch, a King Kong parody, gives us another classic line that never gets old (and despite being a twenty year old gay joke, manages to still not seem offensive). Marge ends up marrying King Homer in the end after he fails to climb more ten feet up the Empire State Building. The last story, Dial Z for Zombies, is a mashup of a lot of zombie source material and is probably my favorite because of the classic undead action, the tombstone puns, and the cute older brother/little sister interaction between Bart and Lisa which is missing so often when the two of them act like adults.
Kang and Kodos Watch: Last sketch, in their spaceship waiting to conquer Earth.