Álex de la Iglesia’s Witching and Bitching has the “anything goes” funhouse quality that memorably informed films like the director’s The Last Circus. There’s a degree of innocence to de la Iglesia’s sensationalism: You can feel him laughing with you as he hopscotches over one social pressure point to the next, landing gleefully violent punchlines along the way. A terrific heist sequence kicks things off, with a group of human statues, from Jesus Christ to a toy soldier to SpongeBob SquarePants, suddenly pulling out shotguns and stealing a bag of gold wedding rings from a pawnshop stationed in the Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid. Things go awry, as they tend to in movie heists, and bad guys and innocents alike are casually blown away in the crossfire, cumulating with the weirdly hilarious sight of SpongeBob Squarepants riddled with bullets in the street.
A sequence like that isn’t funny exactly because you secretly wish that someone would kill SpongeBob. It works because the idea of a cop so blatantly shooting a children’s icon in public fleetingly registers as a perverse exaggeration of a bureaucracy that’s desperately cleaning up a mess that’s gone beyond loco. And we’re not talking about one chaste gut shot. SpongeBob gets 10 or 15 rounds square in the chest in the middle of a crowded street. And, of course, there’s Jesus as your criminal ringleader, which carries that familiar tinge of de la Iglesia’s Catholic-schoolboy blasphemy. A child soon likens the carnage to Grant Theft Auto: San Andreas and you can’t help but agree: This a video game sprung to life, and everyone’s too desensitized by actual video games to espouse the proper outrage.
De la Iglesia has a real flair for wild action sequences that remain exhilaratingly coherent and sensical; he’s inherited that Spielberg gift for staging set pieces in which the foreground and background of the image are allowed to frequently comment on one another. The early chase scenes are particularly boldly composed, with the runaway criminals foregrounded in cheekily “iconic” poses while the background teams with worker bees desperate to catch up with them. A later fight between two women in a huge underground cavern has a similarly inventive sense of geography. The specifics of the cave are so clear as to nearly appear three-dimensional.
Thematically, though, Witching and Bitching represents a step back for the filmmaker. Led by José (Hugo Silva), a ne’er-do-well who organized the robbery so as to afford to pay his ball-busting ex’s alimony, the criminals eventually run afoul of a witch’s coven, which de la Iglesia mines for a variety of stale sitcom jokes about idiotic dudes and the harridans that ruin their lives. The tone grows less certain at this point, divided by competing sensibilities: As led by a spurned mother played by the marvelous Carmen Maura, the witches have real stature (particularly one who sports metal dentures that cause her to resemble the Lon Chaney creature from London After Midnight), and it’s refreshing to see them validated as combatants of male oppression, rather than mindlessly portrayed as demons that should’ve been killed by valiant white men.
But that stuff belongs in a better horror movie that doesn’t ultimately parrot values that could be boiled down to “women, what the fuck do they want?”—a sentiment that’s epitomized by the film’s ungainly lack of sympathy for José’s ex, who’s only trying to get back her kidnapped child. These dissonances might have been forgivable if the film had a second act, rather than just a first and a third. You’re trapped with a variety of bickering clichés for so long that you’re numbed to the fireworks that de la Iglesia eventually, impressively, sets off at the end for a conclusion that owes more than a bit to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s a familiar price to pay for a filmmaker’s scattershot, sketchbook-style inventiveness: great highs unpredictably punctuated by baffling lows. Still, it’s hard to dislike this film as it’s a hell of a carnival ride.