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  • nickkarner

The Witches (1990)


What do you think drove the late, great Jim Henson to go insane and want to scare the living shit out of every child on the planet? Was it years of teaching the ABC’s to a constantly revolving door of adorable but probably ill-behaved children on Sesame Street? Perhaps the grueling task of constructing the elaborate, puppet-filled worlds of The Muppets and Fraggle Rock inspired him to seek his revenge upon the little moppets who lapped up his kid-friendly entertainment like so many kittens to a large saucer.

Regardless of the reason, the legendary innovator wished to indulge in his darker tendencies after so many years of relatively light endeavors, so the world was gifted two of Henson’s most ambitious and daring ventures: The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Both Crystal and Labyrinth have remained beloved cult favorites for decades, thanks in no small part to the wizardry of Henson’s world-famous workshop and the many talented puppeteers and technicians who worked for him. Thanks to Netflix’s Dark Crystal prequel series The Age of Resistance, interest in the original 1982 film has spiked, although I always found it to be a dreary, slow-paced film. I much preferred the weirdness of Labyrinth due to its compelling story, inventive special effects, memorable score, and the iconic performance of David Bowie and his distracting codpiece. While these two films didn’t perform particularly well (Crystal made money, Labyrinth didn’t), they were merely a warm-up to what would ultimately be Henson’s most viciously frightening, and sadly, final production as he died soon after the film was completed: The Witches (1990).

Rather than take the director’s chair for his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s twisted, gleefully evil allegory for child endangerment and stranger danger, his choice for a director to helm this “children’s film” was inspired, surprising, and even a little unnerving. A description of maverick independent filmmaker and BAFTA-nominated Nicolas Roeg’s career can be boiled down to one word: audacious. A brilliant cinematographer, whose work included Roger Corman’s most beautiful film, The Masque of the Red Death, and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451; he’d make his directorial debut with the highly controversial Performance, sharing directing duties with fellow independent madman Donald Cammell (Demon Seed). As a director, he’d make a wide variety of unusual pictures, including the mystical Walkabout, the surreal The Man Who Fell to Earth, the fractured Bad Timing, and what’s widely regarded as his masterpiece, the haunting Don’t Look Now. The 80’s were an odd time for Roeg, who clearly didn’t want to play by anyone’s rules and this was reflected by his work on films like Insignificance and Castaway. The decision to hire the fearless Roeg to tackle a project rife with deliciously wicked possibilities guaranteed a seriously disturbing final product.

The Witches is an excellent and exceedingly rare example of material which simply refuses to be softened despite the best efforts of well-intentioned filmmakers. The words “murder children” and “kill children” are spoken here and Roeg, Henson, and writer Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now, The Spiral Staircase, D.A.R.Y.L.) don’t shy away from the grim nature of Dahl’s tale. While the casualty rate is much lower in the film version, the nature of who and what witches are rings true and their fierce determination in hunting and killing children is only matched by their palpable glee in watching kids in danger.

As it’s become the custom to transplant the settings of Dahl’s work from England to America, as in Matilda, or at least replace the very British leads with American actors, as in Willy Wonka or Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s commendable that only the lead actor’s citizenship was altered while the film itself remains distinctly English. In a beautifully-presented opening sequence which never feels bogged down by exposition or overstuffed, American boy Luke (Jasen Fisher, Hook) listens, mouth agape, to his badass grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling, Torment) beguile and unnerve the little tyke about the very real danger of witches. The attention to detail and overall tone of the film is established, with unobtrusive but lively handheld camera work by cinematographer Harvey Harrison (The Burning), a spooky, bouncy score by Stanley Myers (Paperhouse, Frightmare), and expertly-paced cutting by editor Tony Lawson (Barry Lyndon, The Butcher Boy). There’s a magical quality to this extended, montage-style beginning which carries on through most of the film. This is easily one of the breeziest children’s films ever made despite some lengthy scenes taking place in single locations.

“What makes her dangerous is the fact that she doesn’t look dangerous.” This sage and ominous word of advice from presumed witch hunter Helga is particularly apt since she herself once had a nasty encounter with a witch, resulting in the loss of the little finger on her left hand. Society has long regarded the fairer sex as less-threatening, which allows witches to move about freely and undetected amongst the so-called “normal folk.” Helga’s description of what to look for when searching for a witch is chilling. Their pupils have a bright tinge of purple, which is driven home by an abrupt cut to a pair of bright purple eyes which are practically glowing. They have no toes, so they wear simple, sensible shoes. Their hands are gnarled and clawed, so they’ll often wear gloves, but we do see a brief glimpse of a witch’s hands as she stares across the street at her next target. Weirdest of all, they’re quite bald and wear wigs, which itch so much that they have an extreme case of scalp rash. Their unique sense of smell causes children to smell like “fresh dogs droppings,” while Helga adorably tells Luke that to her he smells of “raspberries and cream.” It’s a fascinating theory that if a child is dirty, “it’s the dirt she smells, but if a child is clean, it’s the child she smells.” Zetterling is outstanding in this role and her wonderfully matter-of-fact advisement that Luke is probably safe taking a bath “once a month” is hilarious. Of course, witches also enjoy black cats, so if that’s the case, then I’m a witch because my black cat Tom was awesome.

I got literal chills rewatching the tragic and very affecting sequence in which a little girl (and Swiss Miss lookalike) named Erica, played by Elsie Eide, is sent to get a liter of milk. The scene in which the small child, who can barely handle the huge metal canister, walks alone through a deserted alley and is snatched up by the witch is creepy beyond belief. It’s made very clear that a witch’s only goal in life is to kill children. We’re never certain whether eating them figures into the equation and Helga even mentions that they don’t kill children in a traditional sense. Helga was Erica’s best friend and witnessed firsthand the panic amongst the village and watched as the police searched for weeks and Erica’s parents sank into a deep depression. While visiting them one day, Erica’s father stares at the new painting they’d bought on the day Erica went missing. In a scene which still sends the hairs on the back of my neck standing, he sees little Erica inside the painting. What’s even more cruel is that as Erica is trapped forever in the painting, she continues to age until she’s an old woman. Her sudden disappearance from the painting could mean she simply passed away, or possibly something worse.

In the best tradition of Batman origin stories, Luke’s parents are killed, this time in a terrible car accident while dressed to the nines. They’re only seen for a brief moment, although through a very clever gesture, Roeg shows us that they’re good parents and Luke loves them very much when his mother’s shawl slides through his hand. It’s extremely sad, particularly when Luke has drawn some adorable pictures for his parents and their beds haven’t been slept in. The capper is Helga and Luke cuddling together and crying on the couch. I go back and forth on Fisher’s whiny, nasally voice. At some points, you want the witches to get him, but at others, there’s an innocence to his naïve sweetness that’s endearing.

Fortunately, Luke has the best damn grandmother in the world to look out for him, so while he’s living with her, he’s able to put her training to work. With the exception of the Grand High Witch (magnificently played by Oscar-winner Angelica Huston), the absolute creepiest performance belongs to a witch who is only known as the Woman in Black, played with authentic menace by Anne Lambton (Sid and Nancy). She happens upon Luke in his (fortunately) impregnable tree house and it’s jarring when she removes her sunglasses to reveal her bright purple eyes. She tries to entice Luke down with a snake that she speaks to, then brings out the big guns: “A big bar of chocolate.” I really wish they could’ve had it be a Wonka Bar, although theorists believe it is one, just without the label. In a particularly scary moment, she interrupts Luke’s desperate cries for his grandmother with the troubling “She can’t hear you.” Being a child, one tends to jump to conclusions, so when I heard this, I believed she’d somehow gotten to Helga off-camera. Luckily, she didn’t, and that bitch is sent packing.

Helga collapses after giving Luke a pair of mice as a present for his birthday. A doctor arrives straight from the tweed store and gives the baffling diagnosis of “a mild case of diabetes.” Guess they didn’t say pre-diabetic or Type A, B, C, etc. in those days. They head off for a holiday at the seaside Excelsior Hotel, which in reality was the actual Headland Hotel where much of the cast and crew stayed. British comic and national treasure Rowan Atkinson is the snooty, smarmy hotel manager who can’t stand Luke’s mice but has bigger fish to fry as the hotel is hosting a large event in the great hall: The 5th National Convention of The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The level of commitment and intensity that Huston brings to her role as the Grand High Witch can’t be understated. She brings a method-level ferocity and unapologetic sadism to a role which is both wildly over-the-top yet completely controlled and precise, as well as sexy and alluring. Her grande dame persona extends to her outer human form, which is represented by an elaborate mask and pounds of makeup. The utter fabulousness of her cruelty and snobbery makes her both awful and hilarious at the same time. After one admiring witch compliments her appearance, Huston’s first line in the film is: “Wish I could say the same for you.” Huston employs a Germanic accent, which feels appropriate to the character, especially when she later utters the line: “It must be exterminated immediately!” Yeah, that sounds pretty German.

I imagine the response the witches get when Huston arrives is something similar to how women would act if Martha Stewart arrived for a conference, speaking of pure evil. They go absolutely gaga and are practically speechless with idol worship. Huston herself had quite a year in 1990, receiving an Oscar nomination for The Grifters, which in turn meant that each of her critics' awards were for both The Grifters and this film. I’d like to think that critics were bowled over by the vast difference between these two characters. The only witch who isn’t necessarily a huge fan of the grand high witch is her assistant Miss Irvine (Jane Horrocks, Little Voice), who’s constantly being berated and insulted while trying to serve the fuhrer, um, I mean leader.

Luke takes his mice William and Mary to explore the hotel and happens to set up near the stage of the great hall (very accurate to the book, right down to the red and gold chairs), but his timing is crap because all of the witches begin filing in and he’s forced to hide. Here we get what is inarguably the best and most impressive scene in the film. A lengthy, jaw-dropping mix of brilliant acting, excellent writing, and kinetic direction. The witches in the audience go bananas for the Grand High Witch, who strikes a pose as the camera rushes in.

In grotesque, extreme closeups, the witches remove their shoes, gloves, and worst of all, their wigs, revealing nasty, bald heads with various rashes upon them. Incidentally, many of the “women” near the back are actually men in drag, a clever touch that’s only noticeable if you look very closely. Also, simply put, witches aren’t really presented as particularly attractive women, so the film can get away with that pretty easily. The reveal of Huston’s true form is an absolute triumph for makeup artist Stephen Norrington (director of Blade and Split Second creature designer), Christine Beveridge, and the rest of their crew. It’s a stunning display of prosthetics and absolutely terrifying, very nearly too much so for a children's film. The makeup also seems to enhance her performance, particularly with her incendiary reading of the word, “Villified?!”

Huston had previously been covered in elaborate makeup for her role as The Supreme Leader in Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson’s Captain Eo, which I saw at Epcot before we knew what we know about Michael, so please forgive me. Although extremely proud of her work, Huston has stated that the 6-to-7-hour makeup application was grueling and the hot lights, along with the intensity of this scene was nearly too much for her. Nic Roeg, being a compassionate man, helped her through the difficult process, which also hindered her from even using the bathroom without assistance due to the gigantic clawed fingers she’d been saddled with. Still, it’s all worth it in the end, particularly when she punishes “a foolish witch” by vaporizing her with laser eyes.

Her sales pitch for her “very latest and very greatest invention. A work of genius. Formula 86,” is rousing as she ramps up to reveal that it’s essentially her final solution to the little problem she calls children. The potion will turn a child into a mouse and she lays out an intricate plan to infect every child in England by purchasing candy stores and tainting the supply of chocolate. When asked about grownups also eating the sweets, she shrugs it off, exclaiming “Well, that’s just too bad for the grownup.” The only thing missing from this scene is Atkinson popping in and thanking them for choosing Airport Hilton.

After Luke witnesses the Grand High Witch transform a spoiled, fat little boy named Bruno Jenkins (played with hilarious one-dimensionality by Charlie Potter), Luke is discovered and he frantically tries to escape. It’s a bit unbelievable that he could somehow wriggle his way out of the grasp of a hundred witches, but he manages to evade them. In a scene which is still shocking both for its randomness and character-driven cruelty, the Grand High Witch is wandering across the hotel grounds searching for Luke and happens upon a baby in its pram. As its mother naps on a nearby bench, she casually pushes it down a hill. The cutaways to random witches cheering as the baby careens toward certain death are at worst evil and at best black comedy. It’s completely in tune with the film’s tone, but it’s still quite troubling.

Helga’s been incapacitated, although whether it’s from her diabetes or the witches is iffy at best. Luke is caught and turned into an adorable little orange mouse. Joining Bruno, who is now a fat little grey mouse still focused on food “they didn’t give me the chocolate!” like a tiny, gluttonous idiot, they make their way up to Helga’s room. This is around the halfway mark and the scary stuff is mainly over. The film never lags, but nothing quite as frightening as the conference scene occurs for the rest of the film, although the grand finale does have its moments.

The mouse effects are excellent and very convincing. Utilizing a 14-week prep schedule, John Stephenson, the creature effects supervisor at Henson’s workshop, designed three differently-scaled mice for various contingencies, but many scenes feature actual mice scurrying about. The puppet work is great, with computerized finger functions allowing the puppeteers to control and modulate their performances with greater ease. Many low-level tracking shots are used to represent Bruno and Luke’s POV.

A plan is hatched to steal Formula 86 and put it in the cress soup the witches will be eating later that evening. The grand high witch’s black cat Libchen very nearly does away with poor Luke, whose cries for help are distressing. Fisher isn’t a great onscreen presence, but his voice work for the mouse scenes is commendable.

Bruno’s parents are played by future Oscar-nominee Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) and Fleabag’s father Bill Paterson. They provide many of the laughs, particularly Paterson, whose an ultra-cheap rich guy who bitches about putting “two lumps of ice in the whiskey” and mistakes the Grand High Witch’s vomit receptacle as a charity dish. Blethyn freaks when presented with Bruno as a mouse, mainly because she’s afraid of mice and Helga is shoved off.

She infiltrates the kitchen, run by future Downton Abbey star Jim Carter, and drops Luke off along with the formula. One of the witches is preparing the cress soup and after tasting the delicious-looking dish after it’s contaminated with 500-doses of Formula 86, she greedily licks the spoon, indicating that the potion is quiet a delicious ingredient, at least for witches. Even if it isn’t consumed, the application of it can have dire consequences, as a chambermaid discovers when she indecently dabs a bit of Formula 86 on her neck and chest, resulting in off-putting furry spots that turn Rowan Atkinson right the fuck off.

What follows is absolute pandemonium as all of the witches are dosed and begin transforming into mice in an awesome display of human-mice hybrid makeup. The grand high witch attempts to resist the effect, pointing a threatening spoon at Helga as she approaches. At the halfway point between witch and mouse, she lashes out as a loathsome, bucktoothed creature before completely changing into a rather ugly mouse. Rowan delivers the final blow with a huge butcher knife, a mess of green blood splattering on his chin. Luke devises a plan to steal all of the Grand High Witch’s money and a notebook which identifies every witch in America. Miss Irvine, ignored and abandoned, unexpectedly arrives outside Luke’s home and changes him back into a boy; a controversial decision which enraged Dahl, who never approved of film adaptations of his work anyways but had been very pleased with the majority of the Henson production.

It’s unclear whether the original ending, which was filmed to appease Dahl, has ever been made available to view. The ending isn’t terrible. More of a convenient logic stretch rather than an out-and-out betrayal of the book’s theme. At least it isn’t entirely out of nowhere. It’s not particularly believable that Irvine would betray everything she believes in, but the film at least lays the groundwork for her betrayal with the abuse she suffers. There’s also a number of theories that Irvine is either a wannabe witch or possibly the Grand High Witch’s slave whose forced servitude was lifted after Luke disposed of Huston.

It’s satisfying to find that most critics appreciated The Witches when it finally arrived on screen, having been shelved for over a year after parent company Lorimar had gone bankrupt and Warner Brothers bought the film outright. Although a little late to the party, The Witches ranks among the best of the darker children’s films of the 80’s like Return to Oz, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Henson’s own The Dark Crystal. It may be one of the finest children’s films ever made considering its bold style, mostly timeless effects, and brave dual performances by Huston and Zetterling. An amazing piece of work.