“WITCHING & BITCHING” (Fantastic Fest Movie Review)
Álex de la Iglesia’s last towering horror effort, THE LAST CIRCUS, was an intensely grim (but not entirely devoid of humor), wildly bizarre look at a country he loves and the struggles that threaten to tear it apart. Being the masterful genre filmmaker he is, WITCHING & BITCHING similarly has a fair share on its mind, but on the flipside is a giddy, delightful supernatural romp, probing the way men and women treat each other.
As did THE LAST CIRCUS, WITCHING & BITCHING opens with a visually stimulating slideshow—one of witchcraft throughout history and packed with cultural signifiers. It moves through occult symbol, ancient art, folklore, illustration of horrific persecution and Hollywood. They all end the same place, and with which we most closely associate witchcraft and witchery: women. Firmly establishing the proceedings as having gender on the mind, we’re introduced to our men.
A group of thieves stand still in a crowded city square. All dressed as various pop culture characters or living statues (Jose, the leader, is a silver Jesus Christ) they wait for a pawn shop’s armored security to arrive. With the help of Jose’s ten year-old son Sergio, a manic, often hilarious heist ensues and by the end of it, Jose, Sergio and Tony have hijacked a cab and fled into the countryside. In the cab, midst high tension, the thieves befriend their forced getaway driver as the three discuss the various ways they’re put upon by the women in their lives (Jose is attempting the robbery so that he may have joint custody of Sergio) and their own concepts of masculinity. By the time they reach Zugarramurdi, the driver has, in a sort of screwball fashion, sworn allegiance to their band and refused to go back.
Of course, their bitching seems especially low stakes when they reach the home of a family of witches. Greeted by a maiden, mother and crone (Carolina Bang, Carmen Maura and Terele Pàvez, all fantastic and game for the silliness) who believe the child is essential to a long-awaited ritual, the boys are tied down and forced to stay for a large family dinner that invites a massive ensemble of Spanish performers to essay colorful, aggressive and funny minor witch relatives.
It’s here de la Iglesia and his cast, clearly having a great time, get a bit messy with where WITCHING & BITCHING is headed. The filmmaker roves through this dizzying, richly designed and energetic world where the witches walk on the ceiling during run-of-the-mill phone calls, the grandmother pops in sharpened iron dentures, Carolina Bang’s Eva falls for Jose and a host of black magick and blood-infused hijinks eventually lead us to the real-life historical Caves of Zugarramurdi (a locale significant in the 17th century Basque Witch Trials). Here, Maura’s witching makes something of a grand retort to all the prior bitching, ending in a fantastic chant sequence that calls up something of the ultimate Witch Bitch.
It’s undeniable that the finale and minor scraps along the way would be better served by less digital FX, but it’s similarly so outlandish that its goofy spirit and good intentions of wanting the men to take some responsibility for their own issues, is still a success. de la Iglesia, as per usual, employs spectacular style, be it the elaborate gothic decor of the home or a misty jaunt across a field in morning. His camera just never stops moving. In at least two sequences of a pursuing mass of witches, they are wide eyed, jumping great heights and frenzied, lending the film an infectious good-time air.
While perhaps not as impactful as the aforementioned THE LAST CIRCUS, WITCHING & BITCHING uses its lunatic, horror comedy nature to visualize a supernatural battle of the sexes. It’s asking why we persecute not just the women in our lives, but family and significant others as well, for what’s most often our own doing.