Written by: Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Álex de la Iglesia
Directed by: Álex de la Iglesia
Starring: Hugo Silva, Mario Casas, and Pepón Nieto
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Men are afraid of us because we know the truth!"
For a film centered on the possible sacrifice of a young child, Witching and Bitching is surprisingly thoughtful and carries some good intentions in its deconstruction of gender tropes, at least as it pertains to expected power structure and dynamics. A blackly humorous battle of the sexes, it aims to undermine men and expose their folly at every turn, a rather laudable and, as it turns out, very funny goal. Unfortunately, it wants to have this blood-soaked cake and eat it too, as the women here are often treated with contempt in a way the men aren’t: boys will be boys, director Álex de la Iglesia ostensibly says, while women are somehow truly destructive.
Those familiar with de la Iglesia’s brand of dark humor won’t be surprised to discover the proceedings here to be cloaked in a layer of wackadoo flippancy. It’s on display immediately, as the film opens with a wildly-orchestrated heist organized by Jose (Hugo Silva); driven to desperate lengths by his ex-wife’s demands for alimony and with his young son (Gabriel Delgado) in tow, he conspires with a group of strangers to knock over a jewelry store while dressed as absurd street performers. Decked out as a silver-speckled, shotgun-toting Christ, Jose can only watch on in horror as it all starts to comically unravel: by the end of the ordeal, he’s stolen a taxi and seen an accomplice dressed up as Spongebob get gunned down in the street.
The breathless pace doesn’t relent from there, as de la Igesia borrows a page from the Tarantino/Rodriguez playbook by having his heist thriller bump into a supernatural horror film. On their way out of the country, the bumbling, ill-fated bandits (who can’t shut up about how they’ve all been screwed by the women in their lives) happen upon a town rumored to be haunted by a coven of witches. These whispers are confirmed pretty quickly when an all-too-inviting group of hags decides to have them over for dinner, where they’ll serve as the main course; meanwhile, they also believe Jose’s son to be their Chosen One and have him prepared for an unholy ritual.
While Witching and Bitching entertainingly unfolds with the manic fervor of an absolute madman, getting past its subtext proves to be a little difficult. From the outset, the film clearly sides with its band of idiots, and even goes so far as to have one of the jewelry store customers announce that these guys have a point: courts typically side with women, so they’re justified in their frustration. From there, it’s one exchange after another featuring emasculated men whining about the various injustices they’ve supposedly endured, whether it’s the robbers or the cops in pursuit of them. For a while, it works because the men and their complaints are absolutely ridiculous. When the two cops begin to bicker with each other like an old married couple, it’s a hilarious takedown that insinuates male insecurity is inherent—it doesn’t exactly need to be plied by a woman.
But as the witches (and Jose’s ex) become more prominent, the message becomes more blunt: these guys might be awful people, but this is what it is to be a man—constantly thwarted by both women and bad luck, yet still quite likeable devils all the same. Now, women? They're literally witches, existing only to prey upon men; not only will they eat you alive, but they’ll also burn your buddies at the stake, abduct your son, and try to feed them to their ancient matriarch demon. Hell, they might even attempt to usher in the decline of Western Civilization while they’re at it. As outrageous as all this sounds, it’s absolutely the barely-concealed subtext of Witching and Bitching: nearly every woman is treated as a predatory shrew, with the poor men—bumbling and idiotic though they may be—emerging as sympathetic creatures when they’re really just pathetic.
The lone exception here is Eva (Caroline Bang), the youngest of the witching clan who inexplicably falls for Jose at first sight and has a change of heart because of course she does—I imagine that plays into some sort of male fantasy involving “turning” a hot girl with your masculine wiles. It’s hardly a coincidence that she is, in fact, the youngest, most attractive of the coven, whereas just about everyone else is made up like an old hag or is weirdly androgynous. At times, Jose’s inexplicable winning-over of Eva feels like validation of the insidious “Men’s Right’s” movement, as he’s able to play the role of the “nice guy” (which he isn’t, of course) and disarmingly convince the girl to abandon her hardline feminist peers. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, Jose raises his own concerns, only to see Eva revert to a psycho hose beast at the thought of already losing her man—it’s an absurd turn that somehow feels more mean-spirited than whatever barbs are lobbed at the men.
But, then again, you’re almost forced to acknowledge that, hot damn, this is one absurd film through and through, so much so that it nearly outpaces its iffy subtext. From a purely cinematic perspective, it’s a hoot and a half, a sort of exhaustive witch’s brew with Hocus Pocus, early Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, and Texas Chain Saw Massacre serving as ingredients. De la Iglesia’s signature manic style carries the film quite far: its dialogue is humorously snappy, its characters indelible, and its imagination wholly undeniable. By the time the film roars around to its climax, it becomes enjoyable unhinged, with only some dodgy CGI working against its effectiveness. Its complete removal from Point A (an urban jewel heist) to point B (oblivious travelers stumbling upon backwoods maniac) to point C (some Grand Guignol Temple of Doom meets Hammer Films shit, complete with unholy chanting and masterful camerawork) impressively diffuses thematic concerns because it’s quite intoxicating.
Still, those concerns linger like a hangover you can’t shake after a rowdy night with the boys; the film is so absurd that I find it hard to peg as aggressively misogynist, but it does carry that casual strain of woman-shaming that’s alarming all the same. It’s an odd turn considering it also attempts to upend men as well and expose them for the shitty, pitiful creatures they are—at least for a little while. The real pity is that Witching and Bitching doesn’t completely commit to this because that movie would be a gratifying romp. The final product here is merely amusing thanks in part to its director’s keen sense of vision and his game cast (especially Bang, who delightfully sinks her fangs into everything, scenery included).
I imagine it might be a bit of an inkblot test allowing viewers to decide how unseemly it is; luckily, it hasn’t taken too terribly long to emerge from the festival circuit, where it’s been quite a hit during the last year. IFC Midnight’s upcoming DVD is a fine presentation, with the Spanish 5.1 track proving to be especially active when the film rumbles to life. A trio of short featurettes (totaling less than ten minutes) accompany the trailer to make up the bonus features on a perfectly serviceable disc. At least the film itself aspires to be something more than serviceable—I don’t want to undersell just how wild and demented Witching and Bitching is. That I can almost completely overlook my reservations is a testament to its bewitching spell. Giant demon-witches will do that to you. Rent it!
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