Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Angelica Huston is Grand (High Witch)

Reader Request

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.


Anonymous said...

I used to love this movie when I was a kid. I seem to have been drawn to darker/stranger movies (as far as children's movies went anyway) when I was a kid, when I look back on it.

adam k. said...

I still love this movie, though I concede that it's far from perfect. I'd just so much rather have this than the usual glossed-over CGI children's book crap.

It's true that Huston leaves everyone else in the dust. Here's another role like Miranda Priestly where the character's not the protagonist and not even onscreen all that much, but is still absolutely a lead player. More than a lead, Huston IS this movie. Even when she's not there, it's all about her.

And the witch convention scene is just genius. I love how most of the witches are really men. The sheer creativity of it all... it just boils over with greatness. There's no way the film couldn't go downhill from there.

adam k. said...

Oh, and Huston really should've gotten a globe nomination (comedy) for this, at least, to be paired with her other one for The Grifters.

Thanks, Nathaniel!

adam k. said...

OMG, one more thing. Nat, did you notice when Bruno walked up to the stage in the convention scene, how Huston did this subtle pelvic thrusting thing, like she was literally getting off on turning him into a mouse??? That moment alone makes this perf genius.

russtifer said...

Glad to see this was a (completely deserved) Anjelica Huston lovefest. Such a great year for her.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that her contributions to The Addams Family movies were incredibly deft demonstrations of an actor's skill. Better comic timing and nuance is hard to find.

Her best performance though must be "The Royal Tannenbaums." I hated the movie when I first saw it, then gradually fell into complete love with it. I think there was an article in Interview magazine at the time about how literally every frame of the movie is like a painting, perfectly framed and set up to greatest effect. I agree, and Huston's work is just exceptional.

Glenn Dunks said...

Yeah, I love Huston on this, I know that. But I haven't seen it in years so I can't be certain whether my feelings for it aren't entirely nostalgia-based.

Mo said...

the grand high witch, as portrayed by anjelica huston, is the BEST witch portrayal ever. the witches is an excellent, intelligent film - none of that hocus pocus shit. i love the gyrating of the hips part - whoever thought that up? that is so original.

adam k. said...

I'm fairly sure it was Huston herself... I don't think anyone TOLD her to do that...


yeah, it had to be Huston. Because that inappropriate sexualization thing runs through the portrait in The Grifters too. And in both cases she completely kills.

i seriously had forgotten how much I enjoyed her work in the early 90s (in a way it's kind of like the Kidman year of 2001 --just unstoppable in its magnetism... never to be quite equalled again?) so this was really fun to watch a second time.

thanks adam for requesting!

adam k. said...

You're welcome!

Yeah, I remember she kind of gets a little weirdly sexual at the end of The Griftes, too, during her big breakdown. It's intense. She's on the commentary track for that, and I remember her saying really interesting things about it.

She was so oddly beautiful and sexy as Morticia Addams, too. No one can do these sick/funny/sexy/dark characters like her. She really is one-of-a-kind.

adam k. said...

And can I just say:

Best Diva
Best Villain

Two gold medals.

Eva Ernst said...

Everyone please come join the official grand high witch fan club!