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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.