(Nicolas Roeg making a kids’ movie? Why, that would be tantamount to… someone as twisted as Roald Dahl writing children’s stories. What’s strangest is that it should have dropped in Roeg’s lap at this point, after a decade of making wilfully uncommercial movies, even by his idiosyncratic standards.
The last time he’d flirted with anything the public might go and see in any numbers was Flash Gordon, before Dino de Laurentis decided not to give him a huge budget for something that would probably go straight over people’s heads (more’s the pity). What with its “metaphysical messiah”, and the intended sexual innuendo making it unsuitabile for family viewing with (although, there’s a fair bit of that in the Mike Hodges version).
Roeg’s lack of attunement with fashioning hits might explain The Witches’ financial failure, even though it’s generally regarded as one of the best Dahl adaptations. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the director of Don’t Look Now making something for junior: unsettling, macabre, twisted, but also very funny and delightfully cartoonish.
The Film Yearbook Volume 9 called it “a misogynistic horror film for kids“, which I guess is one way of looking at it. Dahl’s novel also had the charge of misogyny levelled at it, not least by Dahl’s editor, who suggested he tone down the manner in which the tale’s women “took a lot of abuse“; “Almost every one of his numerous books rehashes the same tired plot: a meek boy finally turns on his adult female tormentors and kills them” argued Michele Landsberg. Will Self, meanwhile, attested that “The infanticidal witches of The Witches stand proxy for all mothers – who kill that which they claim to love; true, the boy’s Norwegian grandmother is a good enough parent, but she’s safely de-sexed by age and illness“.
That grandmother, Helga, warmly portrayed by Mai Zetterling (informed by Dahl’s own Norwegian grandma), rather punctures this all-pervading charge, which is why critiques have to come up with reasons Dahl’s otherwise vehemence doesn’t apply, and she doesn’t really count.
What stays with you in the film isn’t its gender politics, however; it’s the tone and imagery. Roeg’s particularly good with the opening flashbacks to the Norwegian village of gran’s youth, as she informs Luke of the crones’ (un)natural characteristics: bald, itchy scalps, toeless feet – Dahl’s take on what women look like beneath all those layers of makeup and couture? – along with a hatred of children, who “smell like fresh dog’s droppings” to them. A good excuse for Luke not to wash more than once a month. Also revealed is their deadly natures; there’s a particularly striking account translated from the novel, of a child trapped in a painting, moving position before eventually fading away. David Lynch was surely influenced by this for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Later, Roeg effortlessly turns quiet English country lanes into a prowling ground for predatory child snatchers, poised to offer children in trees chocolate (the meeting organised by Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch/Miss Ernst is nominally in the name of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
When the action relocates to a typical seaside hotel, complete with Rowan Atkinson as Basil Fawlty-lite manager Mr Stringer, there’s a resultant relish for the familiar made strange. Broad comedy characters (Atkinson, Bill Patterson’s boorish guest Mr Jenkins) vie with a convoluted evil plan, and when the witches are revealed in their unfettered lack of glory, Roeg pulls out all the stops with unsettling handheld camera work, dollying in on the freaks, their transformations replete with disorientating angles and sudden cuts. Combined with the prosthetics and puppetry, the effect isn’t very far at times from early Peter Jackson; the climactic change of the Grand High Witch into a rat resembles Braindead‘s rat monkey crossed with The Dark Crystal‘s Skeksis.
Roeg recognised the nightmarish potency of the material, that a film shown in the cinema couldn’t be readily escaped, unlike the closing of a book. He noted how he “took out a lot of stuff that was quite extraordinary” from the final edit; “It was one of the few occasions I didn’t mind the studio actually wanting to change the ending. Curiously enough, when Dahl saw if the first time, he didn’t mind at all“.
Dahl evidently revised this view, announcing how appalled he was by The Witches (ostensibly because it messed with the book’s conclusion, in which the young hero, irreversibly transformed into a mouse, is content to live only another nine years as he doesn’t want to survive his gran anyway; I wonder if he’d have felt the same by the time he was a seventeen-year-old mouse?)
The witches plan to turn the nation’s children into mice, which is some way short of mass slaughter. Although, the book assumes teachers will proceed with the messy mouse-squishing business; the protagonist turning into a mouse actually came at the suggestion of Dahl’s editor. The first to experience this transformation is Jenkins’ son Bruno (Charlie Potter), followed soon after by Luke (Jasen Fisher, also of Parenthood; the acting life was evidently not for him, as he abandoned the profession after Hook – Hook will have that effect on you).
If it’s easy to see what attracted Jim Henson to the material (he bought the rights soon after it was first published in 1983), his choice of Roeg is more elusive. One might have expected someone a little less distinctive and more obviously audience-friendly (such as Terry Jones, who penned the screenplay for Henson’s Labyrinth). Which rather makes it a sign he knew exactly the kind of tone he wished to bring most from the material. And he evidently saw it as a director’s project; screenwriter Allan Scott was surely Roeg’s pick, having previously collaborated with the filmmaker on Don’t Look Now and Castaway.
Dahl may have been livid over the changes to the ending, but he’s said to have been over the moon at the casting of Huston. Understandably, as she’s a deliciously unrepentant villain, prone to incinerating her subjects at the drop of an injudicious interjection. Roeg reportedly suggested she made the character sexier, so making for an effective contrast with her decidedly unappealing true self.
Horrocks’ presence as Susan is sure to have met with equal disavowal from Dahl; the character, assistant to the Grand High Witch, wasn’t in the novel, and worse, she’s revealed (or finds herself) as a good witch, thus diluting the author’s alleged gender ire. It’s Susan who turns Luke back into a boy (a line is overdubbed about doing the same for Bruno).
The change was apparently made at the instigation of test audiences (Roeg had shot two endings, one as per the book), but I’d be surprised if the sway didn’t come from concerned adults. It’s little different to Time Bandits, where Kevin’s parents are vaporised by a piece of evil; Gilliam said kids weren’t worried by such things. I’m not sure that’s entirely the case – anecdotally, one hears of children being freaked out by the ending – but in The Witches‘ example, I’d wager most kids would think it was pretty cool being turned permanently into a mouse. That said, I don’t think the decision’s in any way a killer; it’s usually those who are too close to the material who can’t see it any other way (Daniel Waters and Heathers).
Mr Jenkins: Just flew in, did you?
Miss Ernst: What?
Indeed, you can readily discern that curious blend of standard British humour and more unrestrained (and sometimes disturbing) fantasy that informed Gilliam’s ’80s trilogy throughout The Witches. Many of the asides are wonderfully well observed, not least the essential untrustworthiness of adults, even those who aren’t witches (again, Helga is honourably excepted). Most are up to sexual misdeeds, from the manager’s affair with a member of staff, to Jenkins’ roving eye (“It’s not every day one meets a lady of such quality and composure“). Or evidencing questionable morals (Jim Carter’s chef, told that a guest’s veal is too tough, extracts a discarded cut from the waste bin, wipes it down and deposits it on the plate).
I can’t attest to how disturbing The Witches is for a younger audience, since I was already an adult when it was released, but it fully passes the test of entertaining regardless of age. That it’s now regarded as a classic and one of the best Dahl adaptations is likely reflective of concerned parents blanching at what looked likely to make their moppets run screaming for the exits.
It’s generally underseen, though, which probably means Guillermo del Toro thinks he has good enough reason to remake it (which he’s been angling to do for a decade); really, he should be vouching for the quality of a really good adaptation and leave it be, but it seems Robert Zemeckis, now a permanently past-it underachiever, is tackling the project after the forthcoming (horrible-looking) Welcome to Marwen. If nothing else, it should serve to spotlight that there’s another version out there; the uninitiated will be richly rewarded when they discover it.