Skip to main content

I hope nobody else is going to make me cross today.

The Witches
(1990)

(SPOILERS) Nicolas Roeg making a kid's movie? Why, that would be tantamount to… someone as twisted as Roald Dahl writing children's stories. What's strangest is that it should have dropped in Roeg’s lap at this point, after a decade of making wilfully uncommercial movies even by his idiosyncratic standards. The last time he'd flirted with anything the public might go and see in any numbers had been Flash Gordon, before Dino de Laurentis decided not to give him a huge budget for something that would probably go straight over people's heads (more's the pity), with its "metaphysical messiah", and be unsuitable for family viewing with the intended sexual innuendo (although, there's a fair bit of that in the Mike Hodges version we got). That lack of attunement with fashioning hits might explain the financial failure of The Witches, even though it’s generally regarded as one of the best Dahl adaptations. It's exactly what you'd expect from the director of Don't Look Now making something for junior: unsettling, macabre, twisted, but also very funny and delightfully cartoonish.


The Film Yearbook Volume 9 called it "a misogynistic horror film for kids", which I guess is one way of looking at it. Dahl's novel also had the charge of misogyny levelled at it, not least by Dahl's editor, who suggested he tone down the manner in which the tale's women "took a lot of abuse"; "Almost every one of his numerous books rehashes the same tired plot: a meek boy finally turns on his adult female tormentors and kills them" argued Michele Landsberg. Will Self, meanwhile, attested that "The infanticidal witches of The Witches stand proxy for all mothers – who kill that which they claim to love; true, the boy's Norwegian grandmother is a good enough parent, but she’s safely de-sexed by age and illness".


That grandmother, Helga, warmly portrayed by Mai Zetterling (informed by Dahl's own Norwegian grandma), rather punctures this all-pervading charge, which is why critiques have to come up with reasons Dahl's otherwise vehemence doesn't apply and she doesn't really count.

 
What stays with you in the film isn't its gender politics, however; it's the tone and imagery. Roeg's particularly good with the opening flashbacks to the Norwegian village of gran's youth, as she informs Luke of the crones' (un)natural characteristics: bald, itchy scalps, toeless feet – Dahl's take on what women look like beneath all those layers of makeup and couture? – along with a hatred of children, who "smell like fresh dog's droppings" to them, a good excuse for Luke not to wash more than once a month. Also related is their deadly natures; particularly striking is an account translated from the novel, of a child trapped in a painting, moving position before eventually fading away; David Lynch was surely influenced by this for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me


Later, Roeg effortlessly turns quiet English country lanes into a prowling ground for predatory child snatchers, poised to offer children in trees chocolate (the meeting organised by Anjelica Huston's Grand High Witch/Miss Ernst is nominally in the name of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). 


When the action relocates to a typical seaside hotel, complete with Rowan Atkinson as Basil Fawlty-lite manager Mr Stringer, there’s a resultant relish for the familiar made strange. Broad comedy characters (Atkinson, Bill Patterson's boorish guest Mr Jenkins) vie with a convoluted evil plan, and when the witches are revealed in their unfettered lack of glory, Roeg pulls out all the stops with unsettling handheld camera work, dollying in on the freaks, their transformations replete with disorientating angles and sudden cuts. Combined with the prosthetics and puppetry, the effect isn't very far at times from early Peter Jackson; the climactic change of the Grand High Witch into a rat resembles Braindead's rat monkey crossed with The Dark Crystal's Skeksis.


Roeg recognised the nightmarish potency of the material, that a film shown in the cinema couldn't be readily escaped, unlike the closing of a book. He noted how he "took out a lot of stuff that was quite extraordinary" from the final edit; "It was one of the few occasions I didn't mind the studio actually wanting to change the ending. Curiously enough, when Dahl saw if the first time, he didn't mind at all". Dahl evidently revised this view, announcing how appalled he was by The Witches (ostensibly because it messed with the book's conclusion, in which the young hero, irreversibly transformed into a mouse, is content to have only another nine years of life as he doesn't want to survive his gran anyway; I wonder if he'd have felt the same by the time he was a seventeen-year-old mouse?) 


The witches plan to turn the nation's children into mice, which is some way short of mass slaughter, although the book assumes teachers will proceed with the messy mouse-squishing business; the protagonist turning into a mouse actually came at the suggestion of Dahl's editor. The first to experience this transformation is Jenkins' son Bruno (Charlie Potter), followed soon after by Luke (Jasen Fisher, also of Parenthood; the acting life was evidently not for him as he abandoned the profession after Hook Hook will have that effect on you). 


If it's easy to see what attracted Jim Henson to the material (he bought the rights soon after it was first published in 1983), his choice of Roeg is more elusive. One might have expected someone a little less distinctive and more obviously audience-friendly (such as Terry Jones, who penned the screenplay for Henson's Labyrinth), so it's a sign he knew exactly the kind of tone he wished to bring most from the material. And he evidently saw it is a director's project; screenwriter Allan Scott was surely Roeg's pick, having collaborated previously with the director on Don't Look Now and Castaway


Dahl may have been livid over the changes to the ending, but he's said to have been over the moon at the casting of Huston. Understandably, as she's a deliciously unrepentant villain, prone to incinerating her subjects at the drop of an injudicious interjection. Roeg reportedly suggested she made the character sexier, which makes for an effective contrast with her decidedly unappealing true self. 


Horrocks presence as Susan is sure to have met with equal disavowal from Dahl; the character, assistant to the Grand High Witch, wasn't in the novel, and worse, she's revealed (or finds herself) as a good witch, thus diluting the author's alleged gender ire. It's Susan who turns Luke back into a boy (a line is overdubbed about doing the same for Bruno). 


The change was apparently made at the behest of test audiences (Roeg had shot two endings, one as per the book), but I'd be surprised if the sway didn’t come from concerned adults. It's little different to Time Bandits, where Kevin's parents are vaporised by a piece of evil; Gilliam said kids weren't worried by such things. I'm not sure that's entirely the case (anecdotally, one hears of children being freaked out by the ending), but in The Witches' example, I'd wager most kids would think it was pretty cool being permanently turned into a mouse. That said, I don't think the decision's in any way a killer; it's usually those who are too close to the material who can't see it any other way (Daniel Waters and Heathers).


Mr Jenkins: Just flew in, did you?
Miss Ernst: What?

Indeed, you can readily see that curious blend of standard British humour and more unrestrained (and sometimes disturbing) fantasy that informed Gilliam's '80s trilogy throughout The Witches. Many of the asides are wonderfully well observed, not least the essential untrustworthiness of adults, even those who aren't witches (again, Helga is honourably excepted). Most are up to sexual misdeeds, from the manager's affair with a member of staff to Jenkins' roving eye ("It's not every day one meets a lady of such quality and composure"), or of questionable morals (Jim Carter's chef, told that a guest's veal is too tough, extracts a discarded cut from the waste bin, wipes it down and deposits it on the plate). 


I can't attest to how disturbing The Witches is for a younger audience, since I was already an adult when it was released, but it fully passes the test of entertaining regardless of age; that it's now regarded as a classic and as one of the best Dahl adaptations is likely reflective of concerned parents blanching at what looked likely to make their moppets run screaming for the exits. It's generally under seen, though, which probably means Guillermo del Toro thinks he has good enough reason to remake it (which he's been angling to do for a decade); really, he should be vouching for the quality of a really good adaptation and leave it at that, but it seems Robert Zemeckis, now a permanently past-it underachiever, is tackling it after the forthcoming (horrible looking) Welcome to Marwen. If nothing else, it should serve to spotlight that there is another version out there; the uninitiated will be richly rewarded when they discover it.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.