The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl's macabre children's books are classics but they're resistant to movie transitions. Their memorable grotesqueries get smoothed over or the films don't get made at all. He disowned the film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The most successful recent adaptation is arguably James and the Giant Peach. Before that stop motion film arrived, Nicolas Roeg transferred The Witches to celluloid. The resulting film is a seldom discussed oddity that's primarily remembered for an overacheiving star turn from Angelica Huston. She plays the Grand High Witch, "the most evil woman in creation".
The Witches sets itself apart from other children's fantasy films straightaway. It begins with an grandmother/grandson conversation which is notable for its matter of fact harshness. This grandmother (Mai Zetterling) isn't at all concerned with giving her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) nightmares. She simply lays out all the ways in which you can spot witches and details how they do away with unsuspecting children. Adding to the frankess of her storytelling is the handheld camera work which is used in several scenes. It's hard to miss because you don't often see it in children's films, which are invariably slick. The camera choices contribute to the movies roughness which suits the material in tone but doesn't always add up in entertainment value. What's onscreen seems hampered by a limited budget: the sets don't have a lot of character, many scenes look flat, and some visual effects are too lo-fi. The entire budget seems to have been directed to the makeup effects which, to be fair, are very successful at being both creepily sick and sickly funny. Yet, given the over produced nature of many successful children's films; Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch and the rest tend to err on the side of overkill, this might be points in The Witches favor... depending on your point of view.
Divisive reactions to the storytelling and production values aside, there's one element that's a complete and total success: Angelica Huston.
Continue reading The Witches for more on its unique and award-winning star turn.