Most millennials seem to have a story about their first time seeing Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 film The Witches, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book of the same name. Angelica Huston‘s face-peeling Grand High Witch and her coven’s taste for children’s flesh is indeed the stuff of our collective nightmares. But despite the trauma induced by the film, it also shaped a generation of horror fans, specifically providing a delicious taste of body horror that lured us ’90s kids into the genre world.
With so much nostalgia wrapped around that perfectly horrific film of The Witches and the dedicated fans who treasure its terror, you’d have to be a fool to adapt the story again. Well, this is exactly what Robert Zemeckis has done, and understandably there has been some skepticism about his version. While the 2020 adaptation may not satisfy fans of Roeg’s film, however, it is not made only with that audience in mind. Rather, Zemeckis’ The Witches is for a new generation of future horror fans to be: younger children who have a taste for CGI, whimsy, and terrifyingly entertaining witches.
Zemeckis follows many of the familiar beats from Dahl’s story, including the tragic death of a young boy’s parents and his transformation into a mouse. But instead of taking place in England, the 2020 version transports the viewer to Alabama in 1967 as the character who is known only as “Hero Boy” (Jahzir Bruno) moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after a car accident kills his mom and dad. When the two realize they are being targeted by a coven of witches, Grandma moves them to a beautiful seaside resort on the Gulf of Mexico as an escape.
When the boy and his grandmother arrive, they find themselves in the same situation as in the 1990 film: this is where the Grand High Witch (this time played by Anne Hathaway) is holding a gathering of the coven to plan the destruction of the world’s children. The boy, in his attempts to hide from the witches, is transformed into a mouse and must work with his grandmother and two other mice children to stop the murderous plot.
Again, the 2020 version of The Witches treads similar ground to the original film, never really deviating from the expected narrative. But that also means that none of the deeply upsetting undertones of the original tale are lost. This is a film that refuses to sugarcoat the issues of death and mortality and instead addresses them head-on, particularly through its hopeful yet upsetting ending. Death is not portrayed as something to be scared of; rather, it is acknowledged as an inevitable fact. This clear-eyed perspective on death treats the film’s audience as more than just innocent children, but as more perceptive beings that deserve to be addressed honestly.
The biggest difference between the new film and the old comes from the former’s use of computer-generated images that cater to viewers more accustomed to those visuals. They create a world that is more whimsical than scary, which makes Zemeckis’ The Witches feel a bit more accessible to a younger audience. They don’t care about the history of special effects. What they do care about are the scares, and the 2020 version of The Witches delivers, particularly through Hathaway’s performance as the Grand High Witch.
Before her monstrous features are even revealed, she already comes across as devious, from her intense stare to her hilarious and unidentifiable accent. Hathaway embodies camp, throwing everything she has to terrify children and amuse adults. Her transformation only adds to her horror as she reveals a large mouth full of sharp teeth, three reptilian fingers, two feet each with a single long toe, and a bald head covered in a flaky rash.
She may not peel off her face, as Huston does in the 1990 version of The Witches, but Hathaway still represents the uncanny: a figure that looks like an adult but is twisted into something that cannot be trusted. What’s scarier than realizing adults don’t always care about you? Hathaway’s performance underscores not only the horrors of the witches but the horrors of privileged, wealthy women.
The horror extends to the children’s transformations into mice. Again, CGI is used for this transformation sequence, compared to the 1990 version’s display of body horror that only practical effects can provide. Zemeckis leans into his reliance on CGI to create a sequence that, while not as horrific, is attention-grabbing and even awe-inspiring for a young audience. Transformations are emphasized by a flash of green smoke and a violent jolt of empty clothes into the air. While the 1990 adaptation uses transformation sequences to make the body horrific, the new film shifts to slapstick comedy that slightly eases the tension of an otherwise scary moment.
Those who were terrified by the 1990 version may be put off by a lack of practical effects and Hathaway’s absolutely over-the-top performance in the 2020 film. But the new version ought to inspire and truly terrify a new generation of budding horror fans who are just starting the explore the genre. Just as the earlier adaptation of The Witches was a gateway for millennials, the remake offers a three-fingered hand to wide-eyed children and leads them into the dark, twisted, and enchanting world of horror.