31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three single women in a picturesque village have their wishes granted, at a cost, when a mysterious and flamboyant man arrives in their lives.
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Jenkins, Keith Jochim, Carel Struycken
Director: George Miller
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In 1988, renting a movie was quite different than it is now. Back then, before the huge corporate video chains, due to the expense of just one tape, small stores would only be able to get one or two copies of a VHS, and demand was sky-high for the latest release. In most locations, you put your name on the reserve list and waited in line. Sometimes, you’d luck out, and your name would come up on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’d be set for the hottest title, or you could be stuck trying to plead with your parents to let you bike over to pick up your reserve on a school night.

My eight-year-old brain only needed to see Michelle Pfeiffer (my love of Grease 2 was at peak fervor), and I got my name on the reservation list for The Witches of Eastwick quickly. I then spent the next three weeks calling daily to ask where I was on the list and, wouldn’t you know it, I got the call on a Saturday evening. Perfection. That meant I had Saturday night and most of Sunday to take in this supernatural comedy with plenty of adult material that went straight over my head. It remained a favorite of mine to watch on cable over time, and as I got older, I could focus on the non-Pfeiffer parts, appreciating the sly mix of horror and fantasy, not to mention the delicious performances of a divine cast.

Adapting the 1984 novel by John Updike, screenwriter Michael Cristofer took a looser approach to Updike’s more straightforward story of three women in a small New England town who come under the spell of a devilish newcomer who meets their every wish in a romantic partner. All three women have different desires and unfilled needs that are suddenly, surprisingly, met. As their relationship with the man deepens, an awakening occurs that surprises and scares them. When they realize they may have fallen for the devil himself, and he’s using them to create mayhem with even more wicked tumult planned, they bond together and use their newfound powers to send him packing.

Updike’s novel was considerably more pro-feminist than his previous works. However, it was seen in some circles as stereotyping women as literal witches who depend on a man for satisfaction. By making a few tweaks, Cristofer (The Night Clerk) establishes the women at the outset as independent entities that happen to be enriched (or, in some cases, enhanced) when they meet the man of their collective dreams. It also helps that director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, Babe) worked with four fantastic talents, an enviable quartet that certainly made the film a box-office smash and has kept it a popular title for nearly forty years since it was released.

Though Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment) gets top billing (and as the biggest box office star at the time, deservedly so) as the mysterious Daryl Van Horne, it’s Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Pfeiffer that positively make the movie a treat to revisit at any time of year. Even though her acting career had initially been tentative, Cher knew how to pick projects. Oscar-nominated for 1983’s Silkwood and unjustly passed over for a nom in 1985 for Mask, 1987 was the year that Cher came on with a vengeance. The Witches of Eastwick arrived in June, murder-mystery Suspect came out in October, and her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck would be seen in December. She’s perfect as Alex, a headstrong sculptress who finds a refreshing way of letting go of control with Daryl.

Initially arriving on set thinking she had Cher’s part (can you imagine this happening today?), Sarandon (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) was the most experienced actress of the three. She easily slipped into the role of Jane, the mousy music teacher who gets her strings exquisitely plucked by Daryl. Pfeiffer’s single mother is admittedly the least sketched out, and I get the feeling the character was written to be a little daffier, but tonally, it didn’t work, so this was refined to be more “free-spirited.”  Her seduction by Nicholson (with whom she would reteam in 1994’s Wolf) is believable and, ultimately, frightening.

With the help of the Oscar-nominated score by John Williams (one of his best!), the first hour or so of The Witches of Eastwick is light and airy, with Miller embracing the vibe of the tiny East Coast town and some of its oddball inhabitants. As the women become friendlier with Daryl, things grow darker, and we see the effect it has on the buttoned-up Felicia (Veronica Cartwright, Alien), who gets on the wrong side of Daryl by targeting his women. The closer they get, the more Felicia spirals off the deep end, almost possessed by a niggling rage she can’t control or understand. In another year, Cartwright might have been mentioned as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her go-for-broke performance that gets weirder and more terrifying as the film continues.

Audiences helped make The Witches of Eastwick one of the top-grossing movies of 1987, and when it was released on VHS in 1988, it continued to do strong business as a rental. If critics embraced the performances and Miller’s filmmaking, they had issues with the effects-heavy finale that may seem like it comes out of nowhere, but it’s the only place the film can go to close the loop on what it has nicely set up. (I love it and can’t wait for it to arrive.) In fact, there are several fun visual effects sequences, from a tennis game that goes awry to an impromptu flying session, that show that creative usage of technology can gently bolster what is already a well-made film. The final shot is a tad lackluster, but it’s forgivable because the other 117 minutes are a complete delight.

In the years since, the legacy of the novel and the movie have inspired several attempts to revive the story as a television series and one musical that has a decent score but couldn’t survive outside of London, where it is most often revived. I always wonder if they’ll ever try to turn this into a limited series for Netflix or Amazon — in the right hands, it may be worth another look, but Miller and co. did such a fine job with this cozy 1987 film that I wouldn’t want it to be diminished in any way. It makes for a nice Halloween watch if you are going for light scares, but any time of year is fine to visit The Witches of Eastwick.

Where to watch The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

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