Aside from eating enough dressing to put me into a coma, there are few things I’m more thankful for this time of year than the fact that even when I basically flake out on Halloween, there are three of you that still show up when I decide to spit out 1,000 words on something spooky. So since that’s exactly what’s happening right now, THANK YOU. Alright, down to it then.
I’ve made it a point lately of tracking down some of my childhood/horror blind spots, and I did just that a few weeks ago when the ground started to get a good dusting of crunchy leaves, and orange and black hadn’t yet been eclipsed by red and green.
This time around, it was 1990’s The Witches, adapted from the book by Ronald Dahl, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and produced by Jim Henson Productions. I actually only became aware of this film just a couple of years ago, and knew nothing about it at all until I decided to brew a pot of coffee and settle into it. What a fun ride! I intentionally stayed away from reading anything about the plot or the cast, so here’s my totally blind, blow-by-blow reaction as I went along.
First of all, if there was any doubt that it did in fact take place in 1990, look no further than nine-year-old Luke’s acid wash jeans. For the few of you who still haven’t seen it (spoilers ahead, by the way), the basic gist is that he and his grandmother Helga go to Norway for a vacation and end up at a hotel, where they run afoul of some…WITCHES.
It’s pretty straightforward stuff for an early ’90 kids fantasy movie, but the hybrid of a British/American cast and crew give it a different ambiance than comparable films of its time, and there are some unexpected turns along the way.
Straight out of the gate though, shit gets dark when we see that Helga’s past in the old country took some weird, tragic turns. We are to assume that either witches are responsible, or Grandma fucked around with Quitters, Inc. and it didn’t work out.
There’s also a subplot involving Helga’s childhood friend who is locked inside a painting like something out of Night Gallery. Speaking of which, the banner at the top of this very site may look familiar to some of you.
We get one of our first glimpses at an actual witch when Luke is in his tree house and “Julia” from Hellraiser strolls up. I’ll admit, I was disappointed that the scene didn’t end with her bashing his head in with a hammer before he gets a chance to “empty the old bladder…”
Luke’s pet mice get to hang out in essentially a homemade version of Mouse Trap, only much more Halloween. And it was here that I spotted something else – the book in this shot. It’s Lady by Thomas Tryon.
Too many years in film school have encouraged me to believe that this isn’t an accident, and a little bit of research may prove my theory correct. Lady tells the story of Woody, a boy Luke’s age, who spends his boyhood enamored with Lady Harleigh, a grieving widow who is haunted by a mysterious past.
An alluring, older woman…a woman with a mysterious, tragic past…Nice touch.
Speaking of alluring, older women, enter Eva Ernst, played by Angelica Houston. She’s going full Houston here, and looking like icy sex on feet. Ernst heads up the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which of course is just a front for an underground conspiracy of witches who plan on turning all the world’s children into mice. I love this exchange between her and one of her biggest fans:
“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you. You look marvelous.”
“Hmm. I wish I could say the same for you”
Houston delivers the line perfectly and then just cold keeps on walking. It’s enough to make your broom elevate, if you know what I mean.
Wait, Mr. Bean’s in this!? Didn’t expect that!
Wait, Barbara Jane Horrocks (Bubble!) is in this!?
…And Deej just outed himself as an Absolutely Fabulous fan. I’m ashamed of nothing.
Now we come to the money shot – that face reveal! I think it’s easy to forget how impressive Jim Henson’s projects were in the special effects department back then. It wasn’t all puppetry and cute swamp monsters. This is some seriously shocking and intricate prosthetic work, and I can understand how big of a deal this would have been to 12 year olds seeing it for the first time. It holds up well, and I certainly didn’t expect it. I so miss the era when kids movies didn’t shy away from going for the scares.
I love the animatronics of Mouse Luke. All the sequences in which he and his friend Bruno (also a mouse at this point) are running around in the hotel seamlessly alternate between live, trained mice and puppetry. I can’t tell you how much I miss all the innovative effects work during that era. Today’s flashy CGI would have made all these sequences so predictable and devoid of any of the charm displayed here.
While I’m on a roll here, we also get this shot of a book that Luke’s grandmother is reading – Mr. Lucton’s Freedom, by Francis Brett Young. It tells the story of a man on the lam who assumes another identity after he’s presumed dead, a theme that also shows up periodically in the film. Bruno eventually accepts his fate as being a mouse for the rest of his life, and the idea of duality is played out in the witches posing as normal humans while hiding their true, hideous faces.
Also, they straight up tried to kill a baby by pushing it off a cliff. That happened.
In the end, Eva Ernst is defeated and Bubble (I’m sorry, I refuse to call her anything else), who was posing as Ernst’s assistant, turns out to be on the side of good and turns Luke back into a kid again and oh my god he’s totally naked. They just showed that little boy’s “Mr. Bean” in this movie.
It was a different time, folks.
I highly recommend giving this one a watch if you don’t feel I spoiled too much here. From what I understand, the book has a considerably different ending and is also worth a read. I may get to it at some point.
Expect more of me finally checking out more missed “classics” on RG in the days to come. I guess now is a good a time as any to confess that I’ve never seen Blade Runner. So yeah, stay tuned…