Looking back at The Witches

Is it really 20 years since the Roald Dahl adaptation, The Witches, appeared? Yes. But it’s as worthy of your attention as ever, as Jeff explains…

“My orders are that every single child in this country shall be r-r-rubbed out, sqvashed, sqvirted, sqvittered and frrrittered,” barks the Grand High Witch in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a controversial tale about ‘real witches’, that has pushed the fright envelope more than any other contemporary children’s book or film.

It’s been twenty years since one of the most unorthodox fusions of talent pooled together to scare kids silly, with Roald Dahl’s source material played surprisingly close to the text, Jim Henson’s muppets in full grotesque mode, and strangely enough, maverick director Nicolas Roeg at the helm of a ‘children’s movie’.

Dahl’s spin on childhood is uniquely humorous and violent. His protagonists are often lone operators in which death is not only a fact, but is dished out as creatively as possible. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is particularly notable for disposing of spoiled children in increasingly macabre ways, but in this, his most horrific tale, Dahl’s evil antagonists plot child genocide on a global scale.

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First published in 1983, The Witches is inspired by folk tales from Dahl’s own ancestral Norway. Nearly the first fifth of the book is given over almost entirely to backstory, tales of real witches to bait the reader for the adventure to come. The back and forth storytelling session between grandmother and child protagonist provides the witches with a rich history and several harrowing vignettes (of particular note is a child trapped in a painting where she ages and dies).

Dahl doesn’t seek to explain the psychology of his witches. They’re motivated purely by an abhorrence of children (who reek of “dogs’ droppings”) and will stop at nothing to obliterate them all. In its portrayal of relentless child-murdering evil, The Witches bypasses the editorial filters of the children’s book genre and harkens back to the more primal storytelling of the Brothers Grimm.

Although frequently hilarious (and complimented by Quentin Blake’s caffeinated illustrations), at its core, The Witches plays on primordial childhood fears: separation from parents, and fears of being disbelieved by authority figures.

Here, the world is an unsafe terrain in which death may strike at a moment’s notice, from evil witches interloping unseen (and under the guise of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), to, even more unsettling, the very adult figures who seek to protect children. The scheme, in which the witches plot to taint ordinary chocolates with a potion that turns children into mice, will cause the world’s children to get crushed and stamped to death by their parents and loved ones.

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So, what happens when you put Jim Henson and Nicholas Roeg in charge of Dahl’s work? Few films aimed at a family audience have gone this far to scare the bejeezus out of kids. Dahl’s own Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory came close, but those shocks were more psychedelic in nature, not to mention being singlehandedly fuelled by Gene Wilder’s manic take on Wonka.

In Roeg’s moody version, the dangers are monstrous and lethal. The film retains the verve, and more or less the entire plot of Dahl’s book (if providing a more uplifting ending than the original tale). Henson’s Grand High Witch (played by Anjelica Huston) bears an uncanny resemblance to the skeletal skeksis in The Dark Crystal. Here, Henson lets loose with perhaps the most outlandish witch transformation on film.

Roeg’s best films elicit fear by immersing protagonists in foreign, threatening locations: the crumbling autumnal Venice in Don’t Look Now, the orphaned children pitted against the indifferent Australian outback in Walkabout, and even David Bowie’s earthbound alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth. The Witches puts a fractured American family in Europe (Norway and the English coast) and sets both figurative and literal monsters upon them.

Roeg, a former cinematographer, is constantly finding creative ways to lens the story, using unorthodox angles and lenses to create a sense of distortion and visual unrest in what might have merely been a romp in lesser hands. Very few shots in the film feel as if they’ve been secured on a tripod or dolly. Much of the film’s effect comes from its reliance on handheld camerawork and shots that are constantly tilting and moving.

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Visually, Roeg thrusts his audience into an unsteady world that’s never quite in balance. His reliance on wide angle lenses and extreme low/high angle combinations reinforces Dahl’s themes by dwarfing the child protagonists in unsafe worlds, all the more so when pint-sized Luke gets turned into a mouse. And then there’s Stanley Myers’ score, which apart from a spirited main theme, is brimming with dissonance and discord.

Casting is also note perfect. Anjelica Huston’s performance is admittedly more camp than menacing, but her transformation, along with the other witches, delivers the goods (and someone, perhaps the casting director, made the inspired choice of having men play some of the witches seen in the background).

The book gives the Grand High Witch oodles of hysterically seething verse, and to her credit, Huston vamps it up in her portrayal. She’s a hoot for grownups and a walking terror for the tots.

Mai Zetterling, meanwhile, balances the right notes of playfulness, defiance, and terror as the cigar-chomping grandmother, and Rowan Atkinson’s take on the hotel manager is an agreeable riff on some of the elements that worked themselves into both Blackadder and Mr. Bean (not to mention a tip of the hat to John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty).

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Twenty years on, The Witches is notable in how well it bridges the gap between kiddie and adult fare. Sure, Disney had already started to bring a certain amount of class to animated musicals like The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, and Henson’s own Dark Crystal served as a solid prototype for this kind of dark fantasy. But it’s a niche genre that’s otherwise devoid of offerings.

Only the recent adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline or the Harry Potter films (particularly the latest, darkest offering) really provide the same level of horror for the younger crowd.

In its seamless fusion of comedy and horror, The Witches is a yardstick which can stand alongside genre classics like Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator.

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