FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Witches of Eastwick

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Mild spoilers ahead.

Witches are one of those pop culture figures who have gone through the most fascinating evolution through the ages. The witch as a cultural figure is present at various stages of literature with examples in Homer's epic poetry and early European medieval beliefs, but it was the witch trials and the accompanying misogyny across the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that remain one of the defining images. These women were supposed to have made a pact with the Devil for their powers to inflict misery upon those around them and were quickly ostracised, silenced and murdered by those who believed them to be witches. 

However, during that latter half of the 20th century, the witch undergoes something of a reappropriation, transformed into a symbol of female empowerment and resistance to patriarchal rule. Over the course of the century, we go from the traditional Wicked Witch of the West to the ultimate badass Wicca that is Willow Rosenburg (we'll be looking at another cinematic treatment later this month in The Witches with Joan Fontaine). Films such as The Craft and Practical Magic spun the same message of empowerment as well as using it to examine female friendships and gender politics. Television shows such as Charmed helping it along the way. 

The Witches of Eastwick is a great example of this, a film in which female autonomy, male entitlement and the clash between the two are all examined. Based on the John Updike novel of the same name, the film tells the tale of three women, Alex (Cher), Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Jane (Susan Sarandon), each abandoned by their husbands in their own way and finding themselves increasingly lonely. In what amounts to a spectacular case of 'be careful what you wish for,' they inadvertently summon the devilish Daryl van Horne (Jack Nicholson) who begins to play havoc in their small town.

It also happens to be directed by George Miller, he of the triumphant feminist cry that is Mad Max: Fury Road, and a lot of the same gender dynamics are examined here through the relationship between Alex, Sukie and Jane, and van Horne. Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Daryl van Horne is really fun and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. As an actor, he's adept at playing multi-faceted villains, ones who can charm and seduce you, wisecracking and producing some outrageous physical comedy at times, yet always with that sinister edge that never quite lets you settle. 

Daryl van Horne is the schism that rocks the town, turning women against each other, allowing them to be ostracised and turning violent and manipulative when those women start to take a stand against him. In other words, he's the patriarchy. When other women call Jane a slut for the change they see in her and the rumours start to spread about the sexual activities she and her friends have willingly and consensually engaged in, it is van Horne who causes them. Felicia (a wonderfully histrionic Veronica Cartwright) is the only one to realise instantly that something is wrong, but it's put down to mental illness and she ultimately falls victim to male violence in an attempt to bring her into line.

This is where the witchcraft side of things comes in; at the beginning of the film, Alex, Sukie and Jane don't realise the power they wield with only Sukie observing that they might have caused the rain to fall on a speech all three were wishing would end. It takes the adversity and emotional turmoil of meeting with van Horne to realise just how much power they actually wield and that, yes, they would be better off without him. What follows is an awesome moment of sisterhood as they conspire to get rid of him, first by seducing him and then subjecting him to every torment they can think of. It's a great switcheroo and one that is air-punchingly satisfying. The effects of giant Jack Nicholson may look a little wobbly now, but there's something really amusing about the expression on his face once he's shrunken and about to go poof.

A lighter film than some of the last few, but no less welcome, The Witches of Eastwick is a great tale of female empowerment and devilish behaviour. It's also a welcome sight in the current dearth of films about female friendship and solidarity. We need more films like The Witches of Eastwick. 

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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