I liked it enormously when it was new - it was one the first I reviewed as a professional film critic - but I hadn't seen it since, partly due to the inadequacies of previous home video versions. Watching it again I was even more impressed and, for that matter, even more disturbed by its content.
The story opens in Norway, where eight-year-old American boy Luke (Jasen Fisher) is with his parents visiting his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling). Ambiguously, Helga herself has apparently tangled with witches before, having lost part of one finger in one encounter. She beguiles Luke with cautionary tales about the dangers of such creatures, their nefarious methods, and how to recognize them. One particularly unnerving story involves a childhood friend of Helga's who fell victim to a children-hating witch. The young girl completely vanished, only to reappear trapped in a painting of a farm, where she ages while gazing helplessly from the canvas.
Soon after Luke's parents are killed in an automobile accident and Helga becomes Luke's guardian, she goes into diabetic shock, and the two embark on a recuperative holiday at a seaside hotel on the English coast. Also at the hotel is a large party of witches, masquerading as an organization called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In fact, the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) announces a fiendish plan to turn all of England's children into mice. The potion is tested on an obnoxious boy, Bruno (Charlie Potter), and later Luke, discovered eavesdropping on their plans, with both young boys transformed into mice.
Like the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), with its American leads, British and German supporting cast, and Munich and Bavarian locations, The Witches sports a vaguely off-kilter feel that adds to its unease. Mai Zetterling, an inspired casting choice as the nurturing Helga, was a prominent Swedish actress of the 1940s and ‘50s, but who by the early ‘60s had mainly turned to directing. These movies were stark in their political feminism and frank sexuality, so far removed from a children's film, even one as dark as The Witches, it's surprisingly she was considered at all.
Roeg's original cut was reportedly even more disquieting, so much so that terrified test audiences convinced him to dial back its scariest stuff. Even so, it's far darker than the most disturbing moments in Willy Wonka; only the terrifying transformation of Lampwick into a donkey in Pinocchio (1940) approaches it.
The picture was finished in 1989 but withheld for various reasons until May 1990, little more than a week after Jim Henson's untimely passing, and just five months prior to Dahl's. Henson should be applauded for his restraint; most of the film bears Roeg's stamp (and Dahl's) more than his, and the puppetry effects are limited and so subtly done they never get in the way of the story or its characters.
As for Dahl, seems to have been utterly impossible to please in terms of adaptations of his stories. He loathed Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, though a strong argument can be made that, in many (but not all) ways improved upon the book. As for The Witches, Dahl initially appeared to be delighted with many aspects of the film (particularly the casting of Anjelica Huston) and reportedly incensed by its "happy ending," an alternative shot during production and preferred by Roeg after some test screenings. (Without revealing anything, the movie actually retains the bleaker ending of the book to a point. Roeg, however, made the right choice as "his" ending is exhilarating without sacrificing the overall tone of the story. Nevertheless, Dahl threatened to have his name removed from the film, and it was only Henson's intervention that prevented that.
As with Willy Wonka, the film is frightening enough to keep even older children enthralled while entertaining on other levels for grownups. There's an undercurrent of a more serious aim on Dahl's part, retained in the film, that the work can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about child abduction, and the movie imparts a more protective attitude on adults with small kids, and perhaps leaves children more cautious in their interactions with strangers.
At the time, Anjelica Huston received most of the praise for her flamboyant portrayal of the Grand High Witch, much of the time acting under many pounds of extravagant makeup that took upwards of 6-8 hours to apply, a torturous procedure for the actress. She's fine, but so too is the rest of the near-perfect cast. Jasen Fisher and Mai Zetterling strike just the right tone of utter sincerity and concern about their plight, without allowing it to become too overwhelming for the movie audience.
But equally fine are Rowan Atkinson as the Basil Fawlty-esque hotel manager; Bill Patterson as Bruno's insufferable father and Brenda Blethyn as his excitable mother; Jane Horrocks as Huston's dissatisfied assistant; and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) as a French chef. In a clever touch, many of the extras playing witches are in fact portrayed by men in drag; Michael Palin reportedly is among them, somewhere, though I couldn't spot him.
Video & Audio
Warner Archive's Blu-ray of The Witches marks, apparently, the first time ever The Witches has been presented in its correct 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio; all prior home video versions were 1.33:1 open-matte. Roeg's framing, needless to say, comes off far better; much of the film is exquisitely photographed. Originally in Dolby Stereo, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix does the film justice, particularly the fine, evocative score by Stanley Myers. Optional English subtitles are provided on this region-free release.
Criminally, the only extra feature is a trailer. Given its cult following, the film deserves more.
A one-of-a-kind children's film equally satisfying for adults, The Witches is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title, at least until a more supplements-heavy version comes along.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.