“What eyes? Pull them out!”
Flinthart’s rating: I’m going to rate it about 600 out of 666.
Flinthart’s review: There was a Spanish horror series that came out a few years back — 30 Monedas, or Thirty Coins. It was pretty good across a lot of levels, and I enjoyed it. Thus, when an old friend of mine told me that the same director (Alex de la Iglesia) had put out a sort of horror/comedy called Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi (The Witches of Zugarramurdi) back in 2013, I figured it was worth a shot. It wasn’t easy finding it. For some reason, the gronks who distributed it to the English-speaking world lumbered it with the title “Witching and Bitching,” which is about as unattractive as it gets and probably explains why the film pretty much sank without a trace over here.
It definitely didn’t deserve that.
Look, Spanish comedy tends to be something of an acquired taste. There’s a certain frenetic quality to a lot of it which is a bit exhausting, to say the least, and TWOZ (you think I’m typing The Witches Of Zugarramundi every bloody time I want to mention the film title?) certainly shows the influence of the legendary Pedro Almodóvar in that sense — but it’s okay, because TWOZ is actually balls-out funny and not just overwrought. (Yeah… not a big fan of Almodóvar, really. I had girlfriends who made me go to his movies. I’d have been better off watching action films with a case of beer and a few good mates.)
In a nutshell, TWOZ is about an armed robbery gone very, very wrong. This leads the surviving principals to flee in a taxicab that eventually carries them to the Basque village of Zugarramundi, near the border with France. There, they encounter a crumbling mansion occupied by a coven of very powerful, very dangerous, thoroughly batshit-crazy witches who want to destroy the patriarchal civilisation of the Western world and bury Christianity with it.
Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
There’s a lot to like about the movie. Production values are great, FX are seamless and beautifully integrated (I hate CGI for the sake of Big Shiny CGI. But give me a Godzilla-sized ‘Earth Mother’ based on some nightmarish interpretation of the Venus of Willendorf as the climactic element of a gleefully punkish witches sabbath, and I’m pretty damned happy. Oh, and yes, she’s as naked as the original statuette, and the bit where she bends over to reach into a tunnel of the cavern and the camera is sitting somewhere behind her enormous, filthy, flabby arse-end… I think I need to drink a lot more before I go to bed tonight.) Performances are on point, and where they do veer towards the hysterical (in keeping with that frenetic quality I mentioned) you can definitely forgive the actors because the story and the situation would certainly provoke hysteria from most people.
Best of all, though, it’s not just “horror/comedy.” TWOZ is actually about something,
The film opens with a nod to Macbeth if you like: our three primary witches (young, attractive, but dangerously deranged Eva played by Carolina Bang; jovial, matronly Graciana brought to life by Carmen Maura, and classically wicked old Maritxu portrayed by Terele Pávez) hanging out in the countryside, rather chaotically reading Tarot cards. The cards make a lot of weird predictions about a green soldier, a yellow sponge, a cab driver, and rather a lot of gold. It all sounds like nonsense until we cut to the streets of Madrid, and a heist gang dressed like street performers (a green soldier, Sponge-Bob Square Pants, and a silver Jesus complete with enormous cross that hides a shotgun) hits a major pawnshop, stealing something like 25,000 gold rings.
You’re maybe five minutes into the film by this point, and already the lunacy is coming thick and fast. None of the gang knows one another by name, so they use their characters as code names. This leads to people shouting ‘Run, Jesus!’ and ‘Look out, Jesus! He’s got a gun!’ and so forth. Jesus, by the way, is actually Jose (affable, charismatic Hugo Silva), the ‘mastermind’ of the heist. Jose’s marriage has broken down, and unfortunately the robbery is set for one of the days when he has visiting rights with his son Sergio (about eight years old, played gleefully by Gabriel Ángel Delgado) so naturally Sergio is in the thick of things, playing a major role in the heist.
Once the robbery has gone wrong in about as many ways as it’s possible for a robbery to go sideways, we’re left only with Jesus, Green Soldier Antonio (Mario Casas) and little Sergio. Their getaway car is taken by Antonio’s girlfriend, so our hapless villains hijack an already-occupied taxicab to flee the police — and it’s here that the deeper theme begins to emerge. Jose’s bitter, angry wife Silvia (Almodóvar stalwart Macarena Gómez) calls him in the middle of the escape while sirens wail and bullets fly, and little Sergio happily explains that he and dad have just stolen a bag of gold. We also learn that Antonio used to work at “Club Sperm,” but since it shut down he’s afraid to tell his hard-charging lawyer girlfriend that he’s now unemployed. Meanwhile, even the cab driver Manuel (Jaime Ordóñez) opens up and admits that his love life has gone horribly wrong, and decides that he, too, must join the gang in solidarity. Only the taxicab’s legit customer (known only as The Man From Badajoz, played by Manuel Tallafé) actually wants to get out, so the gangsters eventually strip him, bind him, and stuff him in the trunk.
The theme of hapless, clueless men versus sharp, scheming, self-confident women drives the film. Once the cab reaches the mansion of the Witches (after running over Maritxu and apparently killing her only to see her crop up a couple scenes later, completely healthy) it quickly becomes apparent that the Witches have a plan underway. They want to summon up the Great Mother, and feed her The Chosen One (who happens to be Sergio this time; they’ve tried thirty times before, according to Maritxu) who will pass through her and emerge from her womb as The Great Traitor, who will destroy Christianity, the patriarchy, the western world, and pretty much anything else that sounds like men have had a hand in it.
Naturally, Jose and the others aren’t keen. There ensues a great deal of running, screaming, fighting, and sight gags as they try to escape with their bag of ill-gotten gold. Meanwhile, vengeful Silvia has been following Sergio’s phone, and two police inspectors have been following her. They fall through a ceiling just at the moment when the crew of witches and their guests are about to chow down on the Man from Badajoz (who really is having a difficult time) and the action gets even more frantic.
The twist in the tail comes from Eva, the beautiful but mind-bogglingly bi-polar youngest witch. She falls in love with Jose, but her ideas of courtship and relationships are very much the stuff of nightmares. Nevertheless, there’s a real spark, and as the horrible congregation of the witches sabbath calls for the Great Mother and prepares to burn the men (except for Jose who has escaped, but returns for his son) Eva does battle with Maritxu for dominance over the witches while Jose and his companions get Sergio back from his now-witch mother, recover their gold, and run for the hills.
As in the best of fairy tale witch-stories, it all ends happily. Even though Sergio has indeed been swallowed by the Great Mother and gruesomely reborn as the Great Traitor, he is now pursuing a career as a young stage magician, using his immense magical powers to gorily and horribly perform classic ‘chopping up the assistant in the cabinet’ magician routines as Jose and Eva, Antonio and his wife, Manuel, the man from Badajoz, and even various of the hitherto evil witches watch from the audience. Relationships have been forged or renewed in the crucible of lunatic action, comedy and horror, and we have a sense that despite the separate madness of men and women, somehow our characters will find a way to keep their happiness…
The Witches of Zugarramundi is fast and funny, with plenty to recommend it. The pace it sets keeps it from ever being dull, and the comedy comes thick and fast. While it doesn’t really say anything new about ‘the battle of the sexes’, it’s still satisfying way to spend an evening.
- Zugarramundi is a real place, exactly where the film says it is. It has a notorious history of witchcraft, and apparently there’s a museum of witches and witchcraft there.
- Enjoy the victims of the pawn-shop robbery angrily chiding ‘Jesus’ for bringing his son to a robbery with him.
- Appreciate the sight of Jesus fleeing the police while carrying on his shoulders a small boy, armed with two pistols, taking potshots at said coppers.
- Applaud as Sponge-Bob Square-Pants is shot by a policeman, and promptly goes berserk with an Uzi.
- Marvel at the Mysterious Man In The Toilet, and chuckle when the narrative actually provides a decent explanation for why he’s down there
- Cringe at the Enormous Arse-End of the Great Mother
- Sigh at the confession of sweet gay love from one police inspector to the other as they are crucified, awaiting their turn to be burned on the bonfires at the sabbath, and…
- Cheer when they all make their escape and the other police inspector unexpectedly returns the affections of his long-time comrade in arms