The Witches a Creepy and Darling Family Caper
By Kristin Battestella
Honestly, I think it was three months before The Witches was finally off wait in my Netflix queue. When the DVD finally did arrive, I was once again able to enjoy this fine 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s spooky, fun, and family friendly take on our titular dames.
After his parents’ sudden death, young Luke Evishim (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) move to England. To help with Helga’s health, the pair takes a seaside vacation in Cornwall. Helga warns Luke to be weary of witches-who are in fact not the stuff of pointy hats and broomsticks. These cruel witches are led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), are thoroughly organized throughout the world-and they seek to rid the world of smelly little children. Unfortunately for the Evishims, the witches in disguise are holding a conference at their hotel, and the Grand High Witch plots to turn all children into rats thanks to her new potion ‘Formula 86’. After overhearing the witches’ plans, Luke and another boy at the hotel, Bruno (Charlie Potter), are indeed turned into mice. With Helga’s help, however, they devise a plan to stop the Grand High Witch and save all the children in England from her wrath.
Director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and his oft screenwriter Allan Scott (The Spiral Staircase) keep all the charm, comedy, and scares of Dahl’s story. Despite being beloved by children and adults alike, Dahl’s books are, you must admit, a little weird. However, the built-in creepiness and lessons learned in The Witches adds to the onscreen entertainment. Part of the film is indeed frightening; especially in our witches’ ruthless pursuits of kids, for the real life disturbances of such child predators need no creepy gloss-over. Audiences may actually speculate whether The Witches is actually a kids’ film, as there’s some darker imagery that adults will certainly find disturbingly entertaining. Nevertheless, the grotesque comedy moments, suspenseful action, and dangerous chase scenes do a wonderful job of keeping fantasy fun in The Witches.
Despite the ugly evilness of these bald, square footed witches; Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family, Prizzi’s Honor, The Grifters) is excellent and even devilishly likeable as the Grand High Witch Miss Eva Ernst. She’s sexy, exotic, foreign, and strangely threatening and appealing all at the same time. Despite being under heavy makeup and prosthetics when in her true witch’s form, Huston’s physical touches and subtle movements heighten her cold-hearted, witchy ruthlessness. We fear for The Grand High Witch’s intentions but no less respect her horrible thought and skill at the same time. Huston is just that slick. Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous) is wonderfully uppity as Eva’s secretary witch Miss Irvine, too. Then again, controversial aristocrat and Warhol compatriot Ann Lambton (Soul Man, Love is the Devil) is utterly disturbing when trying to lure young Luke from his tree house. We are slightly aware of the witches’ identities thanks to the hints in style- though fashionable, something is always slightly off, askew, or disturbing in their wigs, accents, and gloves. Even so, we are joyfully shocked and dismayed at seeing the true colors of The Witches all the same. It’s all in good fun whilst so full of cinematic chills. I Love it! The fact that the witchy extras are actually grossly made up men makes the creepy even better!
Mr. Bean fans will also enjoy a funny and grumbling performance by Rowan Atkinson as the flaky hotel manager Mr. Stringer. Sukie Smith (Peak Practice) is also a lot of fun as Marlene, a pretty hotel maid and Stringer’s lady foil. The wit of the unbeknowing hotel support against the horrid witches and likeable families works well. Jasen Fisher (Parenthood, Hook) is totally cute as little Luke Eveshim, and his voice work for the mouse puppets is so dang adorable that you can’t help but almost see his little face in the mouse! Likewise, Charlie Potter (who seems so familiar from repeat viewings here but hasn’t appeared in anything else!) is great fun as his pudgy pal Bruno Jenkins. I just love the way he says ‘chocolates’ with his little kid British accent! Brenda Blethyn (A River Runs Through It) and Bill Paterson (Law and Order: UK) are also fun as Bruno’s clueless parents. Mai Zetterling (My Wife and I) is delightfully hippie-esque, loving, and wise as Grandma Helga. She’s on the boys’ side always and knows how to keep away from witches. However, I’m always left with a funny feeling about her, too- like the old ‘say no the Grandpa Joe’ from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory’s film height. Luke wouldn’t be in all this trouble if Helga hadn’t gone poking around witches and telling scary stories of kids trapped in paintings. It’s so sad that The Witches was Zetterling’s second to last film, but what a charmer by which to remember her!
Yes, The Witches is old to youngin’ CGI-obsessed standards, but the effects still look a-okay. The make-up styles and fashions perhaps are too eighties, yes; but the witch prosthetics and animatronics overseen by the Jim Henson Production Company all look great. The decoration and graphics make the fantasy believable, but performance and subtly promote the story more. The simple and eerie purple eyes of the witches are just downright freaky. Thankfully, the mice work is adorable as well. There’s plenty of the real thing for those squeamish folks, but it’s cute all the same. Cramped camera angles from the mouse’s perspective, scary zooms on the witches, and askew, angled points of view from the creepy gals also get the simple tricks of the trade right. Likewise, the music from Stanley Myers (The Deer Hunter) is innocent when need be and dangerous at times, too. I also have to say, the tunnels and toys, mice mazes, and tiny playthings are also a lot of fun, and the seaside locations at the Headland Hotel are wonderful.
Of course, the DVD of The Witches is at best very tough to find and at worst downright elusive. It’s merely a bare bones full screen set with no subtitles anyway. Various editions and Region sets have been about, but a proper restoration of The Witches is long overdue. Truly, a proper video release should come before any of this new sacrilegious remake drivel. Today, a film like The Witches can’t –or simply wouldn’t be made with the basics of effects and focus of charm and performance. We simply must have blue screen witches and teenage hotties in peril. I protest! It’s amazing to think of something made in 1990 as old, but compared to the likes of Harry Potter, The Witches is perhaps out of fashion for some viewers. Having said that, family audiences can enjoy The Witches again and again. Some of the witchy imagery and youthful scares may indeed be too frightening for super young viewers, but the happy ending and magical joy here overcomes any scares. Instead of fantastical graphics and modern fantasy fodder, remember The Witches and have some fun, spooky, family food for thought enjoyment as soon as you can get your greedy little hands on this one!