Late to the Party: The Witches of Eastwick

So here’s the deal: I didn’t realize this was a George Miller movie when I sat down to watch it until his name showed up in the credits.

Do you remember when you used to have to rely on a newspaper or the TV Guide to tell you what movies and shows were going to be on in the week to come? Going through “the TV section” and figuring out what I wanted to watch was part of my Sunday routine growing up, and I must have seen the listing for this movie dozens of times because it was on TV all the time; I don’t remember the synopsis exactly, but I can recall the gist of it:

The Witches of Eastwick (1987, Comedy) *** Three women from small-town New England inadvertently summon their ideal man: the devil. Jack Nicholson, Cher.

It’s a pretty bare-bones description, but I felt that I could glean a decent amount from its components. The title suggests the supernatural, and the synopsis seems to confirm they are not metaphorical or symbolic “witches” or something. The late 80s were rife with fantasy-comedies of varying qualities and ambitions, but the three-star rating (out of four) suggested this was a particularly notable one in terms of quality, as do the actors highlighted: a 1987 film with Cher1 and Jack Nicholson is probably a “grown-up” movie and not Teen Wolf or Little Monsters, or even Ghostbusters or Beetlejuice. Adding it all up, I expected that this movie would be a sophisticated, arch-humored film lightly flavored with supernatural aspects as a way to explore some “battle of the sexes” issues.

Now that I have finally seen it, I can confirm that my assumption was kind of accurate. But it is also a movie where a mean religious lady projectile-vomits cherry pits in ludicrous gross-out amounts. 

You’ll notice the movie listing format did not include the director. I am not a Fury Road-quoting George Miller stan as you will very readily find elsewhere on this site—such a person would no doubt have known ahead of time that this was part of his filmography—but I have seen a couple of his movies.2 This film would have been more baffling without realizing he was behind it; it made sense, after seeing his credit, why the low-key movie I expected was instead full of powerful wind-machine-based setpieces and magic tennis balls and the aforementioned projectile cherry pits.

But it was still a very surprising movie, in that I literally did not know what was going to happen from one scene to the next. My wife and I had to split watching this movie up across two nights, and by the end of the first half, I legitimately could not guess where it was going to go in the second half. All the assumptions I made about this movie were constantly being subverted. 

For example, it’s more explicitly supernatural than I anticipated. I really did assume the movie was going to be more understated about it, possibly even doing the thing of suggesting that there could be a more mundane explanation for everything, that maybe a fortuitous weather event was just a fortuitous weather event. But nope! The women do straight-up magic. Yet, there’s virtually no exposition; the title tells us they’re witches, and we can infer something about the way their “power” works when they’re together, but we’re not given a lecture on, say, modes of witchcraft in the folkloric tradition and how a coven works in the “universe” of the film. Nicholson is not merely some mysterious figure who might have a whiff of the occult about him; he’s explicitly some sort of non-human entity. Yet, for all that he’s characterized as “the devil” in the popular imagination (and the TV section listings), he’s not necessarily supposed to be the biblical Satan. He might be a devil, or a demon, or some other creature you can find in your Monster Manual, but the movie doesn’t put him in a box.

The movie also, I think, refuses to give us a simple takeaway. Broadly, it could be said that some sort of “female empowerment” happens here. Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s characters come out the other end of this movie arguably stronger, more confident, and more fulfilled, and this is broadly what I would have expected to happen in this movie. But the method of this empowerment is troubling because it is of course a man (or at least some creature presenting and identifying as a man) who unlocks this potential, and gives them sons and a fabulous mansion in which to raise them. The movie does not seem to inherently condemn the polycule that the women and Nicholson form by the middle of the movie—indeed, the townspeople who condemn their arrangement are portrayed as priggish and unfair busybodies—but this relationship can’t be read as an entirely positive thing because they do eventually have to reject and defeat the Nicholson-Beast. 

But it doesn’t feel to me at least like this is a movie that tried to say something specific but failed at it or muddled the message. And I don’t think the troubling elements are easily resolved by claims that the movie is just satirizing certain attitudes or philosophies. There are some complicated implications, but it feels like they are complicated on purpose, and the movie is stronger for being ambiguous. I think this is a movie about how things that are harmful can be attractive precisely because they are harmful, but also that things that are harmful can ultimately help us grow… although even this seems a little too uncharitably simple a distillation of what actually happens in this movie. 

But that is about as far as I care to take this, but I am hoping there will be discussion in the comments, because a big part of the reason I wrote this is because I was so confounded by this movie—in a good way!—that I’m more interested in hearing more perspectives and judgments about this movie than trying to push one of my own.