The scariest film I ever watched as a child was Nicolas Roeg's The Witches (1990). There were many scenes in films that scared me when I was little, like the two kids hiding in the kitchen from dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993) and the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but nothing I saw as a child terrified me more than The Witches. I can still remember the sheer horror that struck me when the seemingly beautiful Grand High Witch (Angelica Huston) removed her mask, and although the other times I watched it I had to cover my eyes during that scene, I enjoyed the film because it was good scary. Watching it as an adult now I realised just how disturbing the film and Dahl's story actually is but when you're a kid this goes over your head, and the film is purely an adventure, with a few hide-behind-a-cushion moments.
But what makes this film work? It is such a fine balance to make a children's film both enjoyable and scary, yet so easy to fall into the unbelievable or unsuitable category. The Witches flopped on release unfortunately, which is probably the reason why it's not talked about as much in film or in comparison to Disney's hugely successful Hocus Pocus (1993). However I believe that this gives full credit to how good The Witches is, because other great films that flopped on release like It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and The Shawshank Redemption (1996) both keep appearing in peoples favourites. Via word of mouth and people telling each other you have to watch Shawshank, both films grew in popularity more and more. The Witches does not appear on those lists, and it is not a film that is always shown at Christmas like It's A Wonderful Life, but it has a huge following. Everyone I know, saw this film as a child and were terrified and loved it. If you mention The Witches in conversation with your friends they all say "ah I love that film, she (Huston) was so scary!" Even on imdb.com, The Witches is 0.6 points ahead of Hocus Pocus (6.1). Commercial success does not necessarily mean that a film isn't good, and as far as The Witches and it's following are concerned, it also shows that a film's greatness is given a more truthful understanding by it's impact on audiences years after it's release.
Now to look at the film in more detail...
Before long we find ourselves in a cosy room with a grandmother and her grandson, Luke, making candles. This of course isn't as innocent a scene as it sounds because we are immediately thrown into the middle of their conversation: she is telling him all about witches. Now this is quite a while before any of the action has really started, this is just a build-up, but already what we hear is disturbing. She tells of how witches despise children and spend their lives destroying them. How witches have no toes, no hair, and purple tinted eyes, meaning that they wear wigs that make them itch, and sensible shoes. Perhaps the scariest detail the grandmother tells us is that witches can smell a child, even if they are across the road, and most especially if they have washed. To hear this as a child was really scary. I remember the slight panic in my stomach at those words, the glance I gave out the window... a witch can smell you?! Really a genius thought from Dahl, and wonderfully presented in this film. Whilst the grandmother gives all of these facts of course the camera keeps cutting to flashbacks of a horrible witch and her child victim - one of the grandmother's childhood friends. This is really clever because us hearing the grandmother say that her best friend was taken by a witch makes it so much more convincing, she is a witness. And when the grandmother shows Luke her hand where one of the fingers is missing, she states that it was from trying to escape a witch. So her account and everything we are being told is first hand evidence.
This conversation continues for quite some time, including how witches dispose of children (the grandmother's best friend was locked in a painting for the rest of her life) and how there is a Grand High Witch who is in charge of all witches. All of these facts form a solid foundation for us to think about witches, even doubt the grandmother, but also feel slightly nervous that the grandmother's stories might actually true. Luke's parents die that night in a car accident, and the grandmother takes him back to England where he gets some pet mice for his birthday. So the story of witches takes a break for about 5-10minutes of the film, it focuses on the boy and his grandmother. But we do have one very interesting incident when Luke encounters a real witch for the first time, luckily from his tree house. This scene is pretty powerful for a child because Luke is doing what we all did as children - playing outside on their own in the garden. Whilst up in his tree house, we see a glamorous woman, dressed in a smart black suit appear in the background. She is wrinkling her nose in disgust, like she has smelt something revolting (the audience immediately wonders if she is a witch after the grandmother's story). Her head is looking around frantically until she spots Luke up in the tree. Her stare stays on him until she reaches the bottom of the tree. She starts talking to him and offers him a present, but whilst she speaks with him she removes her sunglasses, revealing bright purple eyes. To this, Luke gasps - it's a witch! And we the audience are genuinely worried for Luke at this moment. The scene continues with the witch offering him a snake, a bar of chocolate, and even knowing his name when he refuses to tell her it (showing her magic). Luckily because of what his grandmother has told him, Luke does not fall for her gifts and shouts for his grandmother, who starts coming over to him just in time. The witch quickly walks off as soon as the adult is close, leaving the snake on the wall for Luke. By the time the grandmother arrives, the snake has disappeared, and the camera cuts to the witch walking down a lane pulling the same snake out of her handbrake - again showing her magical powers. Luke tells his grandmother and she believes him.
I've explained the film in quite a bit of detail now but this was only to show how witches are introduced and how the audience is influenced into believing in them, etc. I will only talk about a few final points with this film.
There's nothing really more to say about this film without taking away the magic of it so I think I'll stop myself here. But this really is a masterpiece in children's filmmaking. It is scary enough to scare a child and stay true to the Dahl story, but it is enjoyable enough so that kids are still able to watch the film instead of wanting to turn it off. Huston is superb, everyone in this film makes it the wonderful film it is. If we are going to compare it to other children's films about witches, then The Witches is far superior. Although Hocus Pocus is very enjoyable, it is a more tame version, more Halloween-ey. The Witches, on the other hand, is the real deal, and no witch I have ever seen on film beats Huston. The happy ending may annoy you if you are a fan of the book, but maybe a child would be too upset and scared if Luke remained a mouse for the rest of his life. What seems a good ending in a book for a child, could be really disturbing when shown to them on film. If I had to give The Witches a rating, then I would give it 4 stars. One of the most enjoyable family films that any one from any age group will love.