[Contains spoilers for the film and book, THE WITCHES.]
Whether you’re a genre person or a typical cinephile, certain films leave an indelible impression on you, especially at a young age. And if you’re a genre person, certain titles with a slight horror bent have the power to stick with you — especially if said film, though marketed as being kid- and family-friendly, doesn’t necessarily feel like something a kid should be watching. Depending on your sensibilities, those kinds of titles can differ. (I still get nervous when Christopher Lloyd’s eyes go cartoon-3D in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?) One of those titles, for me, is definitely THE WITCHES, an adaptation of the novel by famed author Roald Dahl, himself no stranger to seeing his works adapted into certain kinds of other so-called kid-friendly insanities. See: WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
Starring Angelica Huston as the German-bred Miss Ernst, the Grand High Witch of the world’s entire witch population, and unexpectedly directed by Nicolas Roeg (DON’T LOOK NOW), THE WITCHES, on its surface, is your typical kid-friendly adventure story. A young boy, Luke (Jasen Fisher), while on holiday with his Swedish grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), discovers that representatives of witches all over the world have gathered to have a witches’ convention in their very same hotel. After Luke crashes the closed-door convention, he overhears that Miss Ernst has a plan to disappear the children of the world: she orders her fellow witches to open up candy shops in their homelands and spike their delectable sweets and deserts with her magical potion called Formula 86, which will turn the children who eat them into mice. Naturally, Luke is discovered eavesdropping, and after attempting to escape, he’s caught and turned into a mouse himself — along with a fellow adolescent hotel miscreant, Bruno (Charlie Potter). Now trapped in mouse form, Luke and Bruno work together, along with Luke’s wily grandmother, to save the day — and, hopefully, return themselves to boyhood.
Along the way, so many disturbing mouse mutant puppets will be wrangled.
And that right there is what caused so many childhood nightmares, courtesy of the puppet effects from the legendary Jim Henson Puppet company, not to mention the overall themes of the story itself. The most disturbing aspect of the film is that witches, though it’s never explained why, utterly abhor children — not just enough that they’re planning a near mass-extermination of them, but that, beforehand, witches have been known to kidnap children and do dastardly things to them behind closed doors. Granted, by comparison, the scheme to essentially kill the world’s children is worse than the errant kid kidnapping, but that scheme is only ever a scheme — an idea — something that’s said out loud, but could never be depicted. However, the film opens with a story of witchcraft, and of kidnapping, and of seeing a young girl disappear while her parents scream her name in the streets and police investigate a missing pail the young girl was known to be carrying.
A girl that is never seen again.
Helga, her past which is also kept a little vague, knows an awful lot about witches, schooling her grandson Luke during the opening moments, showing off the nub where her little finger used to be that she lost while confronting a witch at some point in her past. Take that, and add some double-parental vehicular death, and bam — you’ve got your first EIGHT MINUTES of the movie!
THE WITCHES has always been a personal favorite, and that likely has to do with the hard, somewhat maniacal, and whimsical edge that the film shows off. This isn’t what one would call a “safe” flick to put on for kids. It’s certainly not violent — at least not till the end, but even then, the impact of violence tends to lessen when violent acts are being committed against non-human beings, and that’s how THE WITCHES end. No, the real disturbing moments come from the witches’ utter hatred of children, and the diabolical schemes they hope to enact to rid the world of them for good. More disturbing, however, are when the witches shed their human disguises when in shared company, sliding off their wigs and peeling off their faces to reveal live-action versions of cartoon witch faces: long, peppery noses, terrible complexion, large bulbous eyes, and totally bald.
Angelica Huston has a blast with the role, despite having to undergo long and grueling make-up sessions to put her into full-on witch mode, and with her German accent, she very subtly calls forth allusions to other, real-world events in which a race of people were nearly exterminated off the face of the earth. Whether or not this was intentional, the association is there all the same, and this only adds to the dark tone. Mai Zetterling, largely unknown to American audiences, also does admirable work in a role that’s more restrained, and in a film with a concept as ludicrous as witches turning children into mice. Granted, she’s a tired, elderly woman hampered with diabetes, but she’s also Luke’s protector, and a fierce one at that.
Amusingly, Dahl was distressed and angered by the film, calling it mean-spirited and scary, even though the adaptation had mellowed some of the novel’s darker tone. (The ending of the book even has Luke, still in mouse form, postulating that a mouse’s brief lifespan means he and his grandmother would probably die around the same time. (Yikes.) This ending was shot but not used, as Roeg had vied for the happier end instead, which angered Dahl, causing him to boycott the film’s release and dissuade audiences from going to see it. )
These days, most catalog releases making their high-def debuts come from third-party distributors, who generally care more when it comes to a fancy package bearing the “collector’s edition” moniker. Warner Bros., for a long time, had been the holdout on licensing any of their titles, choosing to either release their own titles or not release them at all. Though they’ve been testing the waters and licensing out some of their smaller titles, they’ve also done admirable work through their Warner Archive Line…when it comes to picture and audio quality; unfortunately, where this line tends to lack is in the supplements department. Generally, there’s been a detectable pattern: had supplements been created for a previous DVD release, those are carried over. However, if the previous DVD had been a barebones affair, the Blu-ray will be the same. THE WITCHES, unfortunately, is no different; in spite of the major contributors (Roeg, Huston, Henson, Dahl), the studio opted not to create any new examinations of this title. (It probably doesn’t help that, although the film was adored by critics and audiences upon its theatrical release, it was a box office bomb.) Still, I suppose we should be lucky that, in the waning days of physical media, we’ve got one more beloved title to add to our shelves.
THE WITCHES is now on Blu-Ray in time for the best, witchiest time of year, and for those of us who grew up with the film, but are old enough to have kids of our own, it’s the perfect time to introduce a new generation to this weird, wacky, and somewhat morbid tale of witches, mice, and cress soup.
Besides, Rowan Atkinson’s in it, and if kids love one thing, it’s Rowan Atkinson!