Box-Office Alternatives: The Witches of Eastwick

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Mad Max: Fury Road is one of those sequels many were hoping would become a reality, yet few actually believed would see the light of day. The continuation of what is undoubtedly Australia's most popular film franchise at last comes to the big screen in a dark yet sprawling apocalyptic action piece just ripe for summertime audiences.

Without question the biggest plus in Mad Max: Fury Road was in bringing back the series' original director, George Miller. The director made his name helming the previous movies in the franchise before creating one of the most unpredictable filmographies in Hollywood, with features ranging from Lorenzo's Oil (1992) to Happy Feet (2006). However, no choice Miller made in his post-Mad Max days remained as standout as his first Hollywood outing, The Witches of Eastwick (1987).

Based on a novel by John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick centered on three women (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) in a small New England town, who dream up what they believe to be the perfect man while on a drunken girls' night. Almost immediately, a mysterious stranger (Jack Nicholson) movies into town and sets his sights on enchanting the three women, who are so captivated by him that they fail to realize that he is actually the Devil.

According to Marc Elliot's book Nicholson: A Biography, The Witches of Eastwick was considered a problem-plagued production if there ever was one, with rumors of arguments between the three lead actresses and of Nicholson's legendary demands. On-the-spot rewrites of the script, bullying producers and a reshoot of the movie's ending meant that disaster could have easily been in the cards for Miller's first Hollywood outing.

For all the purported behind-the-scenes trouble, however, The Witches of Eastwick comes off almost seamlessly. The source material, which reads like the perfect modern, dark fairy tale, is one of Updike's most outrageous novels and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that any film version would be equally wild. Miller, however, is able to maintain a firm grasp on the story so its fantasy elements flourish while the film itself remains grounded in reality, albeit a slightly heightened one.

The movie is a wonderful blend of comedy and fantasy that uses both laughs and special effects in a subtle yet potent fashion, and the idea of challenging conservative small-town ideals is strong. The movie's ending could be considered overblown, and it does amp up the action and the effects to quite a large degree. Yet even at this point, Miller makes sure to never overwhelm his audience, short-change the characters or lose hold of the story.

As good a director as Miller is, The Witches of Eastwick would not be powerful without its cast. As the Devil himself, Nicholson brings all the required charm and mischief you would expect. And as one of the most recognizable entertainers in the world, Cher once again manages to be believable playing an ordinary woman, while it's interesting watching Sarandon as a character who goes from timid to lustful in the blink of an eye. Saddled with the least flashy of the main roles, Pfeiffer nonetheless brings a quality of longing and precociousness to her part, which makes her stand out at times from her co-stars.

The Witches of Eastwick was a hit upon release in the summer of 1987, despite any rumors about on-set turmoil or producer interference. The film has since gone on to become something of a classic, spawning a made-for-TV movie and a TV series, both of which fail to equal the magic of the original film. For Miller, it was in a way his own Mad Max-like adventure of coming to the sometimes apocalyptic-like landscape known as Hollywood, taking on a number of ever-powerful forces, and coming out on top.

Where to watch: The Witches of Eastwick is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.