Hollywood has never had the easiest time transitioning Roald Dahl’s words onto the screen, but a sublime fusion of creative talents makes The Witches one of the most successful tryouts. This isn’t so much a scary children’s film as it is a horror film built for children, this sounds like splitting hairs but it makes all the difference. We are lulled into a sense of placidity and fairy tale hardships in the beginning, no different than any of Disney’s canonized films or beloved stories like A Little Princess, before things just start getting increasingly weird, wild, and dark.
Dahl’s fiction is a blessed mixture of the seemingly mundane surrounded by the grotesque and horrific. Children are frequently blighted by monstrous evil and the adults in their life are often of little to no help, if they’re not already dead or abusive surrogate parents. The Witches may push this worldview to its darkest reaches yet as it argues that the titular creatures are not old crones riding brooms with pointed hats but everyday women you find in day-to-day life. Dahl argues that terror and violence is lurking around every corner waiting to strike, and you must arm yourself to combat it.
This film adaptation doesn’t shy away from that argument. In fact, it leans into it with an aggression that makes you wonder how and why they ever thought this was appropriate family viewing. I know I was, and continue to be, an eclectic person with an appetite for the macabre, so this was nirvana-like viewing for me as a child. I am not surprised to learn that it bombed at the box office. Parents frequently expect an invisible contract with these films stating that they may give the kids a minor shock, but the good guys will win, the bad guys will perish, and order will be restored. The Witches, by and large, does not offer such comforts to its audience.
That is until the audience tested ending which betrays Dahl’s material in a way. We get order restored and a happily ever after, but it feels somehow antithetic to the preceding story and tone. In fact, this ending is my lone complaint about the film, and the only thing keeping it from getting a perfect rating. Everything else is a masterpiece of imagination, dark energy, and fairy tale truth.
Tragedy makes its first mark early in the film when Luke (Jasen Fisher) loses his parents in a car accident. His loving and kindly grandmother (Mai Zetterling, giving the woman a core of steel) teaches him about the reality of witches, takes him in, and eventually the two of them find themselves vacationing on a beach resort hotel. Naturally, a convention of England’s witches is also staying in this hotel, and Luke overhears their master plan for killing all of England’s children.
A lot of this is an excuse for director Nicolas Roeg, producer Jim Henson, and star Anjelica Huston to go completely broad and big in playing and visualizing this material, and it works. We begin with a series of normal shots and everyday living, and Roeg’s typical audacious film-making is kept to a bare minimum. A scene of a young girl getting abducted in a story shared by Luke’s grandmother is a miniature horror epic, but Roeg goes full-on crazy during the witches’ convention. He tilts the camera into their faces so that they become distorted ghouls all bug-eyes or rotten teeth with faces ornamented with scabs, boils, and blemishes.
Then there’s Henson’s special effects and makeup, some of the most memorable creations in a storied and trailblazing career. Not only is the Grand High Witch a towering achievement of creature makeup, but the transformation scenes of various characters into mice are simply disgusting, terrifying, and mordantly hilarious. Crafting these images required real ambition and daring, and a willingness to scare and challenge his typical audience, and the results are magical. Charlie Potter’s mouse-head acting like a yo-yo to his body as he transforms is an image that thrilled and scared me as a child, and continues to stick with me for its sheer audacity.
And then there’s Anjelica Huston completely dominating everything that tries to share a frame with her. Huston is clearly enjoying playing such a sadistic and demented character. She bursts with unhinged sensuality, a severe haircut, and a glamorous tight black dress and heavy eye makeup. Even when the artifice of this look is revealed to contain a desiccated crone underneath, Huston never stops playing her character as a sensual and aggressive dominatrix. The results of this is an energy that strikes a perfect balance between the hilariously kitsch, the absolutely terrifying, and the monstrous. The same year she gave us this perfectly wicked witch, she also gave us the desperate and broken Lilly Dillon in The Grifters. Now that is range.
The Witches succeeds because it never shies away from the sinister lurking around every corner. It may not amount to a group of witches chasing you around a hotel property, but that certainty that danger is just waiting to jump out at you is fundamental to the best children’s stories. From Grimm’s fairy tales to Disney’s earliest features to Roald Dahl’s novels and Jim Henson’s 80’s films, we must believe that something may prevent the happily ever after, if one ever does come. The Witches is predominantly unafraid to be perverse, twisted, scary, and uncompromising in its vision. It’s a damn shame about the ending.