New York — ``The Witches of Eastwick,'' based on John Updike's novel, takes just about every wrong turn it can find. Perhaps this was predictable, with a wild-driving director like George Miller at the wheel. What's surprising is how many opportunities for vulgarity and stupidity the film invents for itself, even beyond the book's built-in temptations to excess.
Eastwick is a small New England town, and the ``witches'' are three women who live there after disappointing marriages. They have magical powers of a sort, but these are seen as almost comical extensions of ordinary human nature. They giggle when they cast their spells, and their hocus-pocus is rarely more threatening than a thunderstorm conjured up to clear the air.
Things change when Daryl Van Horne moves into town. He's rich, mysterious, oversexed, foul-mouthed, and clearly a demon in disguise. Neglecting their children more than ever, the witches fall for him immediately. Their evenings at his mansion (parties? orgies? something even worse?) become an Eastwickian scandal.
There's a serious point to these shenanigans in Updike's novel. It takes place in the 1960s, and the witches' casual mischief is of a piece with the casual relationships of the sexual revolution and even the casual killing of the Vietnam war. When the women escalate their giggly spell-casting to the point of malice and murder, it's a symptom of larger ills in society - no less than the career of the local minister, who leaves off preaching against the establishment to build bombs for the ``peace'' movement.
The film version has no use for this dimension of the tale. It takes place today, and, except for a fleeting reference to apartheid and a couple more contemporary evils, the witches are sociologically on their own. So much for Eastwick as a microcosm, and the story as a cautionary fable. The filmmakers are more interested in Hollywood trivia, like a character's name borrowed from ``Double Indemnity'' for no imaginable reason.
Visually, the early scenes are fetching, as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond pictures the homes of Eastwick as neat dollhouses next to Daryl's thrillingly larger-than-life estate.
Especially striking is a tennis-match episode that director Miller turns into a dazzling gem of cartoonlike cinema.
But things soon turn sour, as the filmmakers replace Updike's ornate (and subtly parodistic) prose with a slam-bang style geared to the box office rather than the discriminating eye or the half-alert mind. The trouble starts with an obnoxious heightening of Jack Nicholson's already heightened performance. It worsens as Miller borrows tricks from such awfully ill-considered sources as ``The Exorcist'' and the post-``Alien'' breed of high-tech scare movies. He even throws in a pointless car chase, as if to remind us (who wants to remember?) that he directed the overrated ``Mad Max'' trilogy.
Few performers could withstand such surroundings. Susan Sarandon and Cher get through a few solid scenes before the picture completely falls apart, and Michelle Pfeiffer does her best with a more hysterically written part.
Nicholson is at his show-offy worst, though. Is he consciously reprising his work in ``The Shining,'' one of his least auspicious accomplishments? If so, why didn't someone tell him to stop?