Friday, 7 September 2012

The Witches: The Real Deal.


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, 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.

So, what makes this film so successful? Lovers of the book have complained that changes were made and even Roald Dahl was annoyed at the happy ending, but what many agree on is that the director Roeg kept the essence of the book. This is key to all Dahl adaptations - you cannot replace the disturbing/scariness of the book with plain weirdness (take note Tim Burton). That's why Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory(1971), Matilda (1996) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) all worked, because the scary element was still there, particularly the idea of children on their own against the adult world. The Witches is widely known to be the most disturbing of Dahl's stories, and perhaps it's being directed by a man known for being able to make a good horror picture (Roeg's Don't Look Now), I guess you could call it a match made in heaven.

Now to look at the film in more detail...

Firstly, the film starts perfectly. The opening titles has the camera traveling rapidly across continuous snowy mountains (possibly Norwegian as that is our starting location) which is already quite a bizarre way to start a picture. With these images we also have a really fantastic soundtrack from the one and only Stanley Myers, a weird mix of daunting and mysterious sounds, juxtaposed with a merry, joyous and somewhat magical ensemble that for me, just oozes 90s children's fantasy. Anyhow, this music and the mountains is a great start for the picture, it just seems to put you in a good mood, and wonder where we are travelling too? I love it.

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.

So after this incident, the audience is left thinking witches DO exist, we just saw one - we saw her eyes, her magic, and she was trying to lure the boy. We really don't know where the story will go from here, but all we know is that witches are real and they do not like children. The grandmother is shortly diagnosed with diabetes and after being recommended to take a holiday for some rest, she and Luke go away to a seaside hotel - which already looks eerie against the grey sky and with the spooky music accompanying the shot. Little do they know, or we for that matter, that Luke and his grandmother could not have picked a more worse time to stay in that hotel.

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.

By the time we reach the hotel, there is one actress who steals the show from the grandmother, Luke, and the director, and that is Anjelica Huston. She plays the Grand High Witch and my oh my has there ever been a woman more terrifying than Huston in this picture? I really don't think so. She makes Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris in Matilda) look like Minnie Mouse. There is a regal quality to Huston that she has always possessed, and she really gets to have fun in this film which I think makes her performance that much greater. The Grand High Witch is the most evil woman in existence, but our first impression of her is that she is a vain snob. Huston gives her a strong German accent and walks around with her head held high. She looks absolutely stunning and like a real movie star, but of course the horror she reveals in the witches meeting when she removes her wig/mask is a real shocker if you've never seen it before. She stands there at the front of the hall, on a stage and yells, "Are ze doorz larrcked and bvolted?!' Once the security of the room is confirmed, all of the witches remove their shoes and wigs - which is horrible enough. Then Huston holds her wig back, peels the skin of her forehead away, and with the help of her assistant tugging, they begin to remove what is actually a beautiful mask. Here we have one of the most shocking, revolting and terrifying moments in film - the true face of the Grand High Witch. 21 years after the film was made and the prosthetics/make-up used to create this foul witch have stood the test of time, looking more real and more horrifying than any modern day effects could even try to do.

Of course, to make the prosthetics work you need a good actress, and Huston embraces the role and truly becomes the witch. The transformation leads to her voice becoming harsher and throatier, striking fear into all of the witches. Her movements are creepy and involve a lot of waving of the arms and hands (which are also brilliantly transformed into gross claws). She is full of authority, and by using her arms/hands to express and give extra force to her words, she commands the room with prestige. As far as the audience are concerned, this isn't Huston in make-up, this is THE Grand High Witch, and as she goes on to discuss her formula that will wipe out every child in England, she becomes more and more hideous. She even destroys another witch in front of our very eyes because she dared question her. She is a monstrous and sickening woman, and I can't imagine any other actress than Huston pulling her off. She is both terrifying and comic, some of the lines she delivers do make you laugh, regardless of how they are.

This isn't the only great example of special effects in the film however, for the mouse puppets too are super realistic. The mice Bruno and Luke turn into are adorable, cute, and very real, adding a lighter touch to the dark reality that they may never be human again, and allowing children to breathe a sigh of relief at these cute furry things onscreen. Once they are mice, a lot of the camera work uses point of view shots from their perspective, so for a short while in the film you feel like you too are a mouse, everything is bigger and there is danger everywhere. Considering The Witches is mainly famous for Huston, the mice are equally as wonderful to watch, especially when Luke takes it upon himself to stop the witches, becoming brave little Luke the mouse.

Aside from the odd scare, The Witches is actually a very funny film, with Rowan Atkinson playing the hilarious hotel owner trying to cover up his shabby standards and Bill Paterson as the customer from hell picking up on every tiny flaw the hotel has. It is also really exciting for children which helps lift them out of the horror of the witches, and instead into the adventure of Luke becoming a mouse and trying to stop them. Even some tense and edge-of-seat scenes like when Huston pushes a baby pram down the cliff, when Luke and Bruno are turned into mice, and the soup scene, all contain the perfect amount of scariness. Watching the film as an adult I think the most disturbing thing about the picture was the fact that the witches in the hotel are all staying under the pretense that they are part of the NSPCC.

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.


  1. I do recall the film getting some attention for being of the last projects Jim Henson worked on before he died. The Creature Shop did the special effects.
    I agree on a lot of the points you make, here, but one thing I would like to add is how they did a realistic portrayal of the daily atmosphere of the hotel - particularly the kitchen. I also like how the mice didn't seem gross or disgusting - the witches were more horrid! :)
    I kind of like the film's happy ending over the one in the book - I guess the assistant became a "good" witch - but then, the book's ending wasn't necessarily sad, either - from a certain point of view, I suppose.

    1. Thanks for that - have updated the post! Absolutely, the normality of the hotel with it's day to day routine and worries of health inspections added to the how scary the film was because this was your average hotel, like many others, and the witches were there! The mice were actually really cute, it was just when the Bruno turned into a mouse that it was particularly horrible. The witches really are grotesque, and even more so to adults I think? The ending to the book wasn't particularly sad, but it wasn't a happy ending in the book. I think the film needed a happy ending though, even if it meant going against the book. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Claudai x

  2. You're welcome! It was a nice movie. In fact, the most grotesque shot was the Grand High Witch's transformation into a ... rodent thing - as if the spell took longer to actually work and she was stuck in-between transformations!

    1. Yeah that but was really gross, that in-between stage of the spell just shows how much more powerful she was than the other witches. Great stuff!