31 Days of Halloween, 800 Bullets, Accion Mutante, Alex de la Iglesia, alternate title, armed robbery, auteur theory, battle of the sexes, Carmen Maura, Carolina Bang, El dia de la bestia, favorite films, feminism, Film auteurs, foreign films, Gabriel Delgado, Guillermo del Toro, horror movies, horror-comedies, Hugo Silva, Jaime Ordonez, Kiko de la Rica, Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi, love story, Macarena Gomez, Mario Casas, men vs women, misogyny, paganism, Peter Jackson, romance, Santiago Segura, Secun de la Rosa, small town life, Spanish film, special-effects extravaganza, Terele Pavez, The Day of the Beast, The Last Circus, witches, Witching and Bitching, writer-director, Zugarramurdi
Occupying a common ground somewhere between cinema-fantastique auteur Guillermo del Toro and legendary surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, the films of Spanish writer-director Alex de la Iglesia are, without a doubt, one-of-a-kind treasures, little islands of individuality adrift in a cinematic sea of homogeneity. Since the early ’90s, de la Iglesia has used genre films like feature-length debut Accion mutante (1993) and El dia de la bestia (1995) to address everything from organized religion to societal responsibility, from the vagaries of the child adoption system to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
Beginning with 2002’s 800 Bullets, de la Iglesia began to move further afield from the scrappy supernatural-themed films that began his career to focus on more “mature” films, albeit ones which still bore very little resemblance to anyone else’s. El crimen perfecto (2004), The Last Circus (2010) and As Luck Would Have It (2011) might have been more grounded in reality than de la Iglesia’s previous films (although The Last Circus is a pretty surreal cake, no matter how you slice it) but were no less quirky and ground-breaking. Since As Luck Would Have It was his most linear, “normal” film yet, I found myself wondering if the wild man of Spanish cinema had decided to walk the straight and narrow, so to speak.
For his most recent film, however, de la Iglesia opted to go a little further back in his career: all the way back to the outrageous El dia de la bestia, as it turns out. Witching and Bitching (or the Witches of Eastwick-referencing original title, Las brujas de Zugarramurdi) (2013) combines action, slapstick, sly black humor and the supernatural in truly invigorating ways, offering up a treatise on the eternal battle of the sexes that manages to lob grenades at both sides while still finding plenty of room for romance, some sneaky asides about Spanish pop culture and some pretty awesome SFX setpieces, including a climatic battle with a massive, ancient goddess that would make Peter Jackson smile. In other words: that magnificent bastard de la Iglesia has done it again.
De la Iglesia has always been masterful with his opening segments and Witching and Bitching continues this trend. After a nicely atmospheric intro featuring some good, old-fashioned witch action (think “bubble bubble toil and trouble/big black cauldron type stuff), we get jumped into a thoroughly dynamic credit sequence that manages to juxtapose images of famous female actors, politicians, historical figures and celebrities with those of witches, pagan symbols, fertility statues, arcane images and serial killers, as if to make the claim that pigeonholing women is just about as stupid and pointless an exercise as possible. De la Iglesia seems to be making the statement that women, like men, are a little bit of every archetype: that old cliché of “the Madonna or the whore” is just as worthless today as it was a hundred years ago.
The film, proper, begins with Jose (Hugo Silva), his young son, Sergio (Gabriel Delgado) and accomplice, Antonio (Mario Casas), fleeing a badly botched jewelry store heist. They make off with a dufflebag filled with gold wedding rings but Tony’s girlfriend has taken off with their getaway car (in her defense, Antonio never bothered to let her know that he would be using her car for an armed robbery, so her reaction is kind of understandable), leaving them stranded as the cops begin to bear down. Springing into action, Jose carjacks a taxi, taking the driver, Manuel (Jaime Ordonez), and his passenger hostage. All that Jose wants to do is get to the French border and he sees Manuel’s taxi as his golden parachute.
Meanwhile, Jose’s highly irate ex-wife, Silvia (Macarena Gomez), has heard about the botched robbery on the news and is rushing over to rescue her poor son and slap Jose upside the head so hard that it jogs his common-sense loose. Along for the ride are bickering cops Calvo (Pepon Nieto) and Pacheco (Secun de la Rosa), who are both convinced that Silvia somehow abetted her low-life ex-husband with the robbery. As luck would have it, all of these disparate characters converge on the titular town of Zugarramurdi, where they will find themselves in the midst of an ancient coven of witches, led by Graciana (Carmen Maura), her elderly mother, Maritxu (Terele Pavez), and daughter, Eva (Carolina Bang). The witches are seeking to resurrect a pagan goddess, in order to replace the reigning patriarchy with a matriarchy and right the countless wrongs that have been inflicted on women since the dawn of time. As love affairs pop up left and right, however, loyalties will be tested: when Eva experiences the first pangs of true love, she must make the impossible decision to either betray her family and her gender or her own heart.
As with all of de la Iglesia’s films, there’s a lot going on in Witching and Bitching: at times, the film seems to move from one complex setpiece to another, with very little room in-between to catch one’s breath. This only ends up being an issue if the film’s setpieces are lacking which, fortunately, is not a problem that de la Iglesia ever seems to be saddled with. From the dynamic, thrilling and hilarious opening robbery (seeing SpongeBob Squarepants get all murdery with a shotgun is, to be frank, a sublime joy that my mind never knew it was missing) to the jaw-dropping special effects showcase that ends the film (I wasn’t lying about Peter Jackson approving: it’s one hell of an awesome sequence), there’s very little about the movie that isn’t captivating, visually stunning or flat-out hilarious.
As a comedy, Witching and Bitching works on a variety of levels, from the silly and slapsticky (Eva serves “finger food” that consists of actual fingers; the various chase scenes remind of Scooby Doo cartoons, at times) to the more subtle and cutting (Eva’s family frequently reminds her that she should be out engaging in “fist-fucking, golden showers and zoophilia,” not falling in love with a wimpy man…they didn’t send her to “the worst schools” just to suffer this indignity!). In addition, there’s plenty of commentary on the “battle of the sexes” from both sides: neither men nor women escape the film’s withering glare unscathed.
As a horror film, de la Iglesia’s movie is, likewise, a home-run – despite the near-constant comedy, he manages to sneak plenty of pure horror beats into the mix, as well. The town of Zugarramurdi is ridiculously atmospheric, coming across as nothing so much as the return of the fog-shrouded hamlets of Hammer Studios’ glory days. There’s a nicely tense bit involving a mysterious person reaching up through a toilet-bowl that’s nearly Hitchcockian in its sustained sense of suspense and the previously mentioned climax, featuring the massive, ancient and blind goddess (brilliantly depicted as a towering combination of the Venus of Willendorf and one of Jackson’s trolls from LOTR) is a real showstopper: they even manage to throw in a nifty mid-air “witches’ battle” to keep things lively.
Despite the nearly constant spectacle, the cast of Witching and Bitching manages to hold their own against the onslaught. Hugo Silva is a charismatic hero and he’s ably paired up with Mario Casas to give the film a pair of sympathetic (to a point) protagonists. Jaime Ordonez is, likewise, pretty great as the kidnapped taxi driver: the scene where he decides to “join” the gang, only to be met with mass confusion by Jose and Antonio (“Does this mean you want a cut or something? How do we know we can trust you?”) is an easy highlight and Ordonez’s nervous, fidgety energy contrasts nicely with Silva’s more traditional heroism and Casas’ kind-of/sort-of nice-guy dumbass.
On the female side of things, Carmen Maura, Carolina Bang and Terele Pavez pretty much steal the film from the rest of the cast: the bit where Pavez puts in razor-sharp steel teeth and Maura scuttles across the ceiling, like a fly, are undeniably badass, as is Bang’s ridiculously hot-headed Eva whenever she’s on-screen. More importantly, none of the witches ever come across as overly shrill or needlessly bumbling: unlike many genre films that purport to detail a (literal) battle of the sexes (Jake West’s Doghouse (2009) comes immediately to mind), there’s never the notion that de la Iglesia has unfairly stacked the deck against his female antagonists.
In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way in which the notion of feminism is handled. Early on, we get a pretty much never-ending stream of misogyny from the likes of Jose and Manuel: even nice-guy Tony joins in after he realizes that his girlfriend actually “holds the reins” in their relationship. This is qualified, of course, once we get to Zugarramurdi and get the other half of argument from the female participants. As Graciana makes plainly clear, men are really afraid of women because they realize that God is actually female and are too terrified to admit the truth: by bringing about the return of their goddess, the women hope to usher in a new, enlightened era, one where women are not subjugated, abused and ridiculed. In a way, neither gender makes it out of Witching and Bitching completely intact, although most of de la Iglesia’s sharpest rocks are reserved for the lunk-headed men in the film.
Ultimately, de la Iglesia’s latest film is proof-positive of why I absolutely adore his movies: they’re big, brash, colorful, lively, funny and intelligent…pretty much any and everything that I possibly hope to find at the theater. While del Toro and Jackson might be better known, I’d argue that de la Iglesia is, without a doubt, the more accomplished, interesting filmmaker: he has a way of blending the fantastic and the mundane in some truly invigorating ways. While The Last Circus will probably always be my favorite de la Iglesia film (if there are flaws in that film, I haven’t found them), Witching and Bitching is an instant classic and should be required viewing for genre fans. Start with this one, start with The Last Circus or pick a random title out of a hat: whatever you do, make yourself familiar with the films of Alex de la Iglesia. If you love films as much as I do, I’m willing to guarantee that you might just find yourself with a new favorite director.