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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.