Fantastic Fest ’13 Review: ‘Witching & Bitching’ Gives Its Audience Plenty of Reasons to Complain

By September 23, 2013
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While their execution can be very, very good, horror films often need for characters to make bad decisions. Like stopping for gas at a hillbilly service station. Or making a trek into the woods without telling anyone. Or, fatally, antagonizing the wrong gypsy hobo. But when a story is start-to-finish completely reliant on its protagonists’ unrelenting stupidity, no manner of smart filmmaking can save it. And Witching & Bitching, Alex de la Iglesia’s latest madcap genre mash-up, literally could not get past its opening scenes, much less to its ridiculous conclusion, without its characters doing the dumbest and most inexplicable things possible. Although it’s entirely possible that de la Iglesia has a singular storytelling style that simply does not jibe with this reviewer’s preferred aesthetic, there are too many conspicuous problems in Witching & Bitching to give it a pass, even if it is possibly the most literally-titled film you’ll see this year.

Hugo Silva plays Jose, a struggling father who brings his 8-year old son Sergio (Gabriel Delgado) along for the daring robbery he stages with his partner Tony (Mario Casas). Losing their ride to Tony’s girlfriend as the cops set off after them, the trio hijacks a cab and enlists its driver Manuel (Jaime Ordóñez) to drive them out of the country. But even as Jose’s bitter ex-wife Silvia (Macarena Gómez) joins the pursuit, they face an even bigger obstacle on their journey to freedom: Zugarramurdi, a remote border town in Spain that is notoriously full of witches. Stopping just long enough to give a mysterious woman named Graciana (Carmen Maura) a ride, the foursome find themselves in much more significant danger, as their passenger’s daughter Eva (Carolina Bang) sets her sights on Jose, while Graciana has more sinister plans for all three of them.

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As much of a goofy rush as the opening heist unfolds – Jose and Tony dress as street performers – de la Iglesia evidently has a taste for combining mundane details with heightened scenarios. Jose’s mid-robbery confession about his wife, alimony payments, and custody concerns offers an awkward if perhaps necessary gush of exposition, but from there, the conversations between him, Tony, Sergio, and Manuel only get progressively pettier, fulfilling the film’s quotient of “bitching” and then some. Most of their subsequent conversations revolve around sexual inadequacy, relationships, and the unpredictability of women, and they are exactly as tiresome as they sound, especially when they overshadow the much more important concerns that the group tries to deal with in between.

Further, the film as a whole is wildly inconsistent, establishing various priorities for the characters (and the group as a whole) that they abandon whenever the plot threatens to grind to a halt. For example, one scene in the middle of the film features a conversation about Zugarramurdi between the passengers of the cab, in which they repeatedly insist upon not stopping for anything because of numerous dangers, including the police on their tail and the possible presence of witches. Literally five seconds later, a woman appears in the street and asks them for a ride, and not only do they comply, but they stop the car at her house, turn it off, and walk inside with her.

These idiotic choices become maddening not just because they don’t make sense, but because they directly contradict other elements of the storytelling. Moreover, they undermine any sympathy or identification we might possibly have with the characters: despite Jose’ insistence that he loves Sergio and wants to spend time with him, he lets him wander off three or four times, and later, he and all of the other characters forget about the boy for a full 15-20 minutes, precisely when the situation is at its most dire.

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That said, there are probably fair comparisons to draw in de la Iglesias’ work here with the likes of Sam Raimi or early Peter Jackson – grand guignol spectacle paired with irreverent, even anachronistic humor. But the differences are more numerous than the similarities, the biggest of them being that in his predecessors’ work, you care about the characters, and humor augments rather than interrupts the flow of the rest of the storytelling. Again, however, some who like the film may fairly characterize my criticisms as a matter of taste, and find its cacophonic execution hilarious and exciting. Regardless, de la Iglesias’ combination of these fundamental elements – characterizations, storytelling, and tone – is grossly uneven, and his overlong assembly of them feels like an endurance test. In which case, Witching & Bitching earns its title honestly by giving the audience plenty of reasons to complain, starting with bad decisions by its characters, and then ultimately by its filmmaker as well.

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Todd Gilchrist is a film critic with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies, and IGN.