Starring: Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher
Directed by: Nicolas Roeg
Written by: Roald Dahl (book), Allan Scott (screenplay)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Original Year of Release: 1990
Order The Witches HERE from Warner Archive.
I was just a kid when The Witches was originally released and it freaked me out. As I grew older, I learned that it has become one of the unsung “children's” story films from the end of the puppetry and practical effects era. Also, it pulled very few punches in the department of scares at the time. As a child, I found it to be a solid, thrilling watch with just enough love and humor to keep nightmares away. Warner Archive has released a brand new Blu-ray of The Witches and it is definitely worth revisiting as an adult.
If you're picking up the movie for the first time, there will be several aspects that will tempt you into a viewing. The first is that it is based on a book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach). who achieved fame by telling dark, magical tales that still took place in the real world. The second is that the film is produced by Jim Henson, creature effects extraordinaire. The third is that it is directed by Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth; Don't Look Now), who was probably the most unconventional choice to direct a movie one would come to find in the children's section of the video store. Not to mention there's the international cast headed up by Anjelica Huston.
The Witches tells the story of Luke (Jasen Fisher), a recently orphaned boy who, while traveling abroad with his grandmother, Helga (famous Swedish actress/director Mai Zetterling), stumbles upon a convention of witches set to rid England of all its children. Anjelica Huston portrays the Grand High Witch, the leader of the international clan of hags.
One of the first observations I had upon this new adult viewing was that the film has a Harry Potter feel to it. Though not nearly as big of a cinematic sensation, it possesses the same tone of a bedtime story with a child thrust into a world of magic. I was also relieved to feel that the creepy bits of the film held up, particularly in the opening sequence involving Helga's childhood friend Erica and her unfortunate fate at the hands of witches. It is that beginning that will pull you into the story and makes the corny comedy that comes later more forgivable. The effects are also still impressive. The puppets and creature effects are real and unsettling enough to keep you trying to figure out how they pulled it off (though Jim Henson may just have been a little bit magic, himself).
Another more adult observation is that the story moves very quickly. It starts off moody and atmospheric and then almost abruptly dives into adventure/comedy and stays that way. The ending comes on very quickly and is jarringly happily wrapped up in a perfect bow. Perhaps that was an intentional contradiction to the beginning? As a child, I appreciated that aspect of the film. As an adult, I hoped for more. I was also slightly disappointed in the lack of special features on the Blu-ray itself. I was really hoping for a “behind the scenes” featurette, or concept art, or at least an interview or two with some good stories/trivia.
All in all, The Witches is still a story worth keeping in the family. There is still magic to be had there.