`The Witches of Eastwick' brought to screen

``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?

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.