As a kid, The Witches was one of my favorite films with its downright creepy and nightmare fueled portrayal of witches who hate children and plot to turn them all into mice. The film still holds up now that I’m an adult with Angelica Houston still sending shivers down my spine when she removes her human face mask for the first time revealing her terrifying true form. Unfortunately, Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches doesn’t hold a candle to neither the film nor the book it’s based on. At best, it brings bad fond memories of watching the original classic. At its worst, it’s an empty shell that is neither funny nor scary.
Charlie Hansen (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) was in a car accident that took the life of both his parents, leaving him to be raised in Alabama by his grandmother Agatha (Octavia Spencer). While there, she warns him about witches and how much they hate children, telling him a story when she was a child and how her friend was turned into a chicken by a witch. As Charlie still grieves over the loss of his parents, Agatha decides to book a room at the fanciest hotel for the two of them to get away too. Little do they know that a gathering of witches, led by the Grand High Witch herself (Anne Hathaway), is also staying at the same hotel and is hatching a plan to get rid of all the children in the world, starting with Charlie.
The film follows the same basic plot points of the original with its own added touches here and there, most notably making Charlie’s pet mouse Daisy an actual human child as well who was turned by the witches. It doesn’t really impact the story as much and just adds a third voice to Charlie and Bruno. Other changes include making Agatha a voodoo healer, which seems a bit unnecessary. Her role is supposed to show that she’s been fighting against the Grand High Witch for some time, but that point is never really made clear, except for the encounter she and her friend had with her when they were younger. Also, Anne Hathaway uses a multitude of accents for her Grand High Witch depending on whatever mood suits her apparently, none of which sound all that great. There’s even a joke in the film about how one of the characters can’t understand what she’s saying. It’s all laughably bad.
Where The Witches falls off the rails, however, is with its presentation. There’s nothing particularly scary about the film. The witches themselves aren’t that frightening or menacing. Instead of ugly, disfigured faces hiding behind human masks, the witches simply have elongated smiles with sharp, pointy teeth that they hide behind a terrible makeup job. Their three-fingered hands are a nice touch, especially when the Grand High Witch stretches her arms out to grab at the children, but overall their design is pretty disappointing.
The same can be said for how all the main scenes play out. What made the original film so great and terrifying was how practical the effects were and how disturbingly real it made everything look. All that charm and uniqueness is gone from this version, instead replaced by gaudy CGI that makes everything feel flat. Key moments feel rushed and have no tension.
By all accounts, you’re simply better off watching the original 1990 film or reading the book. Like a hollow bar of chocolate, The Witches is an empty shell of a film that will only disappoint those looking for something with more substance.