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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Disney DVD
1983 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 + 1:33 Pan'n scan / 96 min. / Street Date August 3, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson, Mary Grace Canfield, Ellen Geer, Pam Grier, James Stacy
Cinematography Stephen H. Burum
Production Designer Richard MacDonald
Art Direction Richard James Lawrence, John B. Mansbridge
Film Editor Barry Mark Gordon, Argyle Nelson
Original Music James Horner
Written by Ray Bradbury from his novel
Produced by Peter Douglas
Directed by Jack Clayton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Something tepid this way comes, and it's a movie that misses its mark by a country mile. Reportedly much reworked in post-production, this ill-fated Ray Bradbury adaptation was just more early-80s evidence that the Disney organization had completely lost its way.

Tamer and far less disturbing than Ray Bradbury's original story, Something Wicked This Way Comes suffers from indifferent direction, weak acting and a script that fails to motivate its characters or its relentlessly unspecial special effects.


Young pals Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) are thrilled when Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his Pandemonium Carnival come to Green Town. Aside from his varied sideshows, Mr. Dark's business seems to be granting the wishes of the townspeople while adding their souls to his parade of captives. Several are enticed by a phantom beauty called the Dust Witch (Pam Grier). Will and Jim realize they're doing battle with forces of evil, but Jim is lured by a carousel that makes its riders grow older or younger ... and he wants to grow up quick. Meanwhile, Will's father Charles (Jason Robards) has to face up to his own grief about growing old and sickly, and being a disappointment to his son.

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman explains how a wonderful short story about a magic barber is so difficult to adapt to film. His lesson isn't obvious until Goldman explains that no matter how magical the verbal descriptions in the short story were, one haircut looks more or less like another. The fine distinctions in the original author's text are impossible to show on screen.

That's just what has happened with Ray Bradbury's own adaptation of his poetic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Without Bradbury's expressive and enthusiastic prose, the events shown in the movie aren't that special. It's like the desired tennis shoes in Dandelion Wine: Reading Bradbury's one-page description of the joy of running in new tennis shoes made me feel as if I had never appreciated the wonder of being a kid. But try and film it, and all you really have to work with is a boy running in tennis shoes. Big deal. 1

In the novel the arrival of the carnival train is like the arrival of the apocalypse, but it is all insinuated through Bradbury's expressive poetry. In the film, we get a couple of views of a train from far away  2 and then an unimpressive model of a carnival. It's too literal, and none of it seems to be filtered through the perceptions of the two juvenile heroes.

Jack Clayton's direction is less effective than Robert Stevenson's work for Disney. The boys are inexpressive and false, and the actors collected for the underpopulated Green Town behave like they belong in a Pepperidge Farms commercial. The script is mainly at fault, but the real blame goes right to the top. With no production guidance, it's as if everyone including the director had to make the movie without talking to each other. The acting, direction and special visuals go in different directions and fail to tell a story or involve us in the characters. Storywise, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a mishmosh. The townspeople's "secret desires" aren't developed, nor is Mr. Dark's motivation. We don't know what he really wants with his captive townspeople or why nobody misses them ... or what happens to them either. We really want to identify with Jason Robard's problems, but they are eventually revealed to be a simple attitude problem. He's still a bad heart risk, but now he'll just laugh and play and all will be okay. Is the moral of the story that Evil exists to tell us not to take life so seriously?

Something Wicked This Way Comes ends up playing like a drowned version of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, itself a fumbled diluting of Charles Finney's ferocious novel The Circus of Dr. Lao. At least in that movie the relationship between the town and the circus was made clear. The Disney folk are so focused on their effects work, they forget to even tell their story.

And the effects aren't much to look at. Good matte paintings will be followed by horrible ones like the final shot of the trio walking back home. Disney's Old Town set never looks good anyway, and the animated green gas is as unimpressive as the ho-hum spider attack. Insect fear found more bite in both Creepshow and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The magical carousel is pretty, but its angles aren't expressive of anything. Charles Boyer's merry-go-round in Liliom has more magic, even in blurry B&W.

Pam Grier was an interesting choice as Bradbury's Dust Queen, casting that the movie fumbles in every way. We already don't buy the phony integrated community of Green Town with its occasional black faces, and why these turn-of-the-century Illinois whites would fantasize about a black dream girl is never properly presented. It doesn't make much difference, as the Dust Queen never really does anything. The robot Kali statue in The Thief of Bagdad is more amorously demonstrative.

As the movie has no intention of going beyond a 'hard G' in the ratings game, only bits and pieces are left of what must have been important sexual themes. A shopowner speaks of Cuban girls who roll cigars between their thighs and another can't open his mouth without talking about women, in poetic phrases that work against our accepting them as characters. Jim wants to take a spin on Dark's magic carousel so he can "come back in ten years," like the midget advises, and do more than just peep at the dancing girls. What this town needs is some more available women, not a carnival of souls. If the film's message is repressed sex, it got garbled in transmission. The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, if you'll remember, had Barbara Eden's finest scene, a very erotic encounter with a satyr that reeked of sex yet never bothered the censors.

Jonathan Pryce is the smart casting choice; his menace cuts through all the hoo-haw and works even when nothing around him does. He even looks all right when leading his pitiful parade through the Disney town set. But it's hard to respect an evil genius who can't see two kids hiding behind a grating or up on some library shelves. He's even sympathetic, when he genuinely wants to have Jim as a son of his own. The kid is established as needing a dad, right?

Jason Robards almost makes the film into a battle between the Library (reading being Bradbury's love) and Sin (Dark's circus of nasties). Finally, a movie that shows a librarian as a hero, even if he's a broken-down hypochondriac! Robards obviously expected the movie around him to better complement his character's quiet anguish. As it is, we wonder what Mr. Halloway's big problem is.

I remember reading of the James Stacy's bad accident in the fall of 1970, on my first morning at college. He plays a one armed, one legged store owner who gets his wish to be young and whole again. It's a okay job as far as it goes, but the truncated story doesn't let us know what happens to him. Does he stay young forever, or is he returned to his original state?

Royal Dano is an unmysterious prophet who seems to have wandered in from Bradbury's script for Moby Dick, carrying a bag of lightning rods as if they were Queequeg's harpoons (also used as a lightning rod of sorts - Bradbury has to be strongly influenced by Melville). Other faces are too familiar or seem to have had their subplots curtailed, as with Jim's philandering mom, played by Diane Ladd. Does Jim want to "grow up" so he can come home to Mom in a different capacity? The movie looks more mangled than the even more disastrous The Watcher in the Woods. Notice that the first credit up in the end crawl is for an editor. He had to patch the mess together, and they let him take the boos by being the first name up on the screen!

Disney didn't invent the horror movie but it's been documented that their Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs inspired generations of European masters like Mario Bava. Even though Walt wasn't involved it's still rather depressing to see the Disney logo ahead of this confused movie. Producers shouldn't make horror movies unless they're comfortable with horror content.

Disney's DVD of Something Wicked This Way Comes sports a beautiful enhanced transfer in widescreen, and a second flat version for those still hanging on to the Flat Earth theory. Apparently that problem will be solved only when flat TVs can no longer be purchased (Hey, what happened to 8-track cassettes?!). Colors are good and the resolution shows all the flaws in the effects while allowing us to appreciate the two child actors' best scene, as inked drawings in Mr. Dark's hands. The only extra is a dull trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Something Wicked This Way Comes rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2004


1. Actually, George Roy Hill did a good job with this in his The World of Henry Orient.

2. Looking very much like the approaching demon in Curse of the Demon; in fact, a building shower of clicking noises used later in the film seems to be inspired by Demon's creative soundtrack. That Tourneur film is a good film lesson of its own in making ordinary things seem uncanny. The movie that uses two simple shots of a train to express something horrible coming is Night of the Hunter; those ten seconds are more unsettling than anything in Something Wicked, and its small-town atmosphere is a million times better.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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