The Number One Movie in America: The Witches of Eastwick
By Sean Collier
October 24, 2020
When choosing a Halloween movie for the family, heed this warning: Do not confuse “Hocus Pocus” and “The Witches of Eastwick.”
If you haven’t seen either in some time, the details might blur slightly; both are stories about a group of three witches in a quaint, picturesque New England town. “Hocus Pocus,” however, is a mildly spooky Halloween romp about an ancient curse, the sort of thing you can show to older children, teens, and adults in the same sitting with a reasonable chance of entertaining the whole group.
“The Witches of Eastwick” is mainly about polyamorous sex. It also features a staggering amount of projectile vomiting.
Despite its playful title, “The Witches of Eastwick” is a decidedly adult affair and a seasonal curiosity. As “Scrooged” is to the holidays, “Witches of Eastwick” is to Halloween; they fit in, but are subversive, strange and genuinely funny. Accordingly, both are remembered fondly — but neither inspires the kind of fandom typical of more normative fables.
“The Witches of Eastwick,” which is based on a John Updike novel, follows a trio of thirty-something women — played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon, all of whom are pitch-perfect — who may or may not possess supernatural abilities. After wishing to meet a mysterious stranger, they get one, in the form of a wealthy kook played by Jack Nicholson.
He’s probably the devil, but he’s more inclined to constantly hint at this true identity than actually confirm it.
While afflicting the town’s more nebbish townsfolk with sloppy curses and playing supernatural games of tennis — between a lot of clearly invigorating sex — the four make up a quirky family unit (only occasionally featuring the seven children the women have between them, one of the film’s oversights). When the maybe-witches get tired of the maybe-demon’s antics, things turn more sinister.
But not any less silly. “The Witches of Eastwick” is decidedly a comedy, with broad, wacky set pieces; it’s more fond of pratfalls than pathos.
The film found an audience, but was by no means a runaway hit. It did not take the box-office crown in its first weekend, falling to fellow debut “Predator.” The following week, it bested the science-fiction flick by less than $25,000 to briefly claim the top spot; it would fall to third the next weekend. It pulled in a total of $63.7 million, just barely enough to crack that year’s box-office Top 10.
Success enough for an R-rated tonal oddity. Not enough success, though, to turn “Eastwick” into a brand. Two attempted television series didn’t make it past a pilot; a third, 2009’s “Eastwick,” was picked up but cancelled in the middle of its first season. A stage version was well received on the West End but has barely been produced in the United States.
And, while you’ll find enough “Hocus Pocus” gear to decorate a mansion in every Spirit Halloween in the country, no one will recognize you if you don an “Eastwick” themed costume this year.
You may inadvertently bring back some ’80s fashions, though. Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher are immaculately attired. (Jack, not so much.)
“The Witches of Eastwick” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: There’s a reason why Jason Voorhees doesn't usually leave Camp Crystal Lake.