Imagine you're in a small village in Spain. You stop at a roadside bar to use the bathroom. There's no toilet, just a hole in the floor that serves as a drain. You squat over it, but then you start hearing the sounds of a tortured soul wailing in the distance. Is the sound coming from beneath the floor? You whirl around and look into the drain. What do you see but an eyeball staring up at you. It is the stuff of nightmares, and it's just one of the nightmarish scenes in Witching and Bitching, a dazzling new horror-comedy from Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia.
The story starts as a robbery caper, with Jose (Hugo Silva) and his gang robbing a bank. The gang is disguised as various cultural icons, from Minnie Mouse to Spongebob Squarepants. Even Jose is made up as a silvery Jesus. There's plenty of bloodshed and high speed action as they shoot their way out of the bank, and all seems to be going in the direction of a Tarantinoesque adventure. Jose is a divorced man who had his son for the weekend, so in order to spend time with the boy he brought him along on the heist. There's some comic dialogue as Jose and his cronies argue such topics as married life, and the proper way to deal with children, but the banter ends with the gang trying to elude the cops. A high speed chase brings the robbers into Basque country, where strange woman stand at the roadside lifting their skirts, and the sky is suddenly darkened by bats.
The story then moves into the horror realm, as the gang finds itself stumbling into a coven of cannibal witches. Naturally, the witches need some new bodies for an upcoming ritual. Eva, one of the younger witches (Carolina Bang), creates a problem when she develops feelings for Jose. Will she help him escape? Is the whole thing a dream? And who was that person under the bathroom floor?
The movie is fascinating in that de la Iglesia keeps piling on the unexpected. First we meet a few witches, and they're weird enough in the way the can walk upside down on the ceiling and scuttle out of the room like lizards. They're traditional witchy types, using frogs and bugs to cast their spells. Then, it turns out, witches are everywhere, even working Government jobs. The movie has a heavy fear and dread of women - even the non-witches are portrayed as loud, unpleasant harpies. The gang members are all bitter about their ex-wives, and the movie works as an amusing depiction of the modern male's inability to cope with women, to the point where all females appear to be witches. Or bitches.
The movie slams along with the breathless pace of a greyhound race, stopping only occasionally to catch its breath. The final act is damned near apocalyptic, with de la Iglesia pulling from such diverse sources as the woodcuts of Brueghel, the witches of Goya, scenes of hell from early silent films, and even the glandular monstrosities of Peter Jackson's middle earth. True, at times it seems he's throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, but when one does it with such glee and energy as de la Iglesias, it works.
Hell, I could go back and watch the opening credits over and over again, a beautiful montage of old movie actresses, and images of witches from classic artworks. I'm not sure what de la Iglesia is trying to say, but I sure love hearing him say it.
Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur is another film about a man dealing with women, but it's a shrill, often unbearable two-hander that covers the same old fluff about the exchange of power that goes on in a relationship.
Mathieu Almalric plays Thomas, a stage director trying to cast a play. He needs a woman who can play a manipulative bitch, but none of the actresses seem to have the qualities he needs. Into his empty theater comes Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a seemingly dippy actress who is not at all right for the part. The movie shows her trying to win the role, proving to Thomas that she's indeed the sort of dominating super bitch that he needs. The audition process starts to take on a disturbing tone as Vanda teases and taunts Thomas, until it seems she's not there to audition, but to penetrate his soul and teach him some life lessons.
Polanski adapted the play by David Ives for the screen, and has Almalric wearing a hairstyle that Polanski used to wear in his younger days. At times, Almalric is a dead ringer for Polanski. Almalric is a good actor, and he tries like hell here, but the movie is just to obvious to allow any subtleties. Seignor has some funny moments, but she's the main reason the movie comes off as shrill. It's in French, and there's something about a woman with a high pitched voice screaming in French that can curdle the skin of even a veteran filmgoer. If you can sit through this one, you are truly a stronger person than me.
Do men secretly dream of submitting to a woman's power? Maybe. Is it an interesting subject for a movie? Maybe. But there has to be a better way to show this than to have one more goofy scene of a woman dragging a man around in a dog collar.