The Witches (1990)

92 minutes – Rated PG for body horror, macabre ideas, child murder, and dark themes.

I have said it before but Roald Dahl was a very big part of how my mind formed at a young age. He lived in an ugly world and the fiction he wrote reflected that. He lived in England throughout World War I in an almost Dickensian childhood. What was already a scary time for all classes, due to being in a war zone, was even scarier being a child. Despite that constant fear he experienced, he grew up and had kids of his own. He also fought in World War II and famously was sent on an expedition to the United States to do anything possible to get the US government to agree to enter the war. He somehow made it through the horrors of a war-torn childhood, English boarding schools, and combat in World War II among other things. He was able to take this darkness and put it into children’s literature which stood out against some of the more saccharine things I was offered as a kid. His books were always unsentimental and the child characters were put into real danger. As dark as things got, there was always some desperate hope present.

Body horror is when a character’s body is magically or mechanically transformed, degenerated, or destroyed. Usually, the altered person has to then live with these horrific changes. A milder example is the body changes seen throughout Beetlejuice. Not only the changes the Maitlins make to themselves but also the flattened civil service worker and the premature aging near the end of the movie. A more relevant set of examples begins with Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a man slowly turns into an insect. That same thought was brought into the various versions of The Fly which has a definite science fiction bent to body horror. The real horrific example there is the version made by Cronenberg who is a true master of body horror. What scares me most about body horror is the loss of self. For better or for worse, I am who I am and I do not want anybody forcefully taking that away from me. The thought sickens me that I might lose myself through fate or somebody’s cruel machinations.

This was the last movie that was personally overseen by Jim Henson. It really shows. By 1990, Henson and his crew had really perfected their art. The movie is full of over the top costumes and special effects that are absolutely terrifying. However, the movie also has a lot of more subtle effects such as more realistic animal puppets. I was absolutely blown away by the mouse puppets and how well they switched between puppets and real mice. Also, they synced the dialog up so well. I love puppets and they really outdid themselves on this one. As for the other effects, they are full-blown body horror. The prosthetics and costumes for the witches are very well done. They are grotesque and absolutely something right out of a child’s nightmare. They look a lot like how I imagined they would look like from Dahl’s description and the illustrations. The transformations are frightening but so smooth that it’s hard not to admire them even as I am creeped out.

The casting was really good for this one. Roald Dahl was upset by some of the changes in the movie but the one thing that got him to accept this adaptation was the casting of Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. Huston always put out an absolutely magnetic performance. Here, she is so good at being evil and arrogant. Her performance often adds a menacing air of tension and others a fever pitch of insane evil where the change happens with the flip of a switch. This brilliant casting is backed by a mostly English cast. Mai Zetterling is great as the grandmother and former witch hunter, tasked with watching over her grandson. The movie is dominated by the voice of Jasen Fisher, who plays the traditional Dahl child hero. He is great at playing that pure-hearted kid who tries his best to do the right thing. Part of the ensemble is Rowan Atkinson who adds a lot of the comic relief as only a legendary comedian can.

Overall, I loved this movie. While much of it is not very scary, some of it is downright frightening. It is a great adaptation of a classic children’s novel. While there were changes, it was only to make the movie a little less scary than the book was. The book and the film are both parts of that older tradition of both scaring and delighting little children. While Dahl’s works are dark, they usually have at least a bittersweet ending.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: