There are many films from childhood that you remember for scaring you. The horrors you were not supposed to watch, the children spook shows (Goosebumps, anyone?) and the family films that most likely would not get passed by the wishy washy standards of today.
One film that nineties babies will defiantly remember is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Set in a world where Witches are real and prey on the innocence of children, the film was a no-holds-barred depiction of women who kidnapped and killed children with a dark humorous twist. The film also has one of the greatest screen credits of the wonderful Anjelica Huston.
Helga (Mai Zetterling) knows that Witches are real and sets about teaching her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) on how to spot them. When Luke’s parents are killed, the two move to England to start over. While on holiday at the seaside, the Hotel they are staying in becomes overrun with witches led by The Grand High Witch herself (Anjelica Huston). Overhearing their scheme to turn all the children in England into mice, Luke is captured and turned himself. Along with another gullible young boy, who is now also a mouse, the pair must alert his grandmother and stop their evil scheme.
The film is, of course, based on the Dahl book of the same name. Directed by Nicolas Roeg who also directed Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film is an overall faithful adaptation with minor changes to plot and character.
By today’s standardw, we are used to plucky young heroes facing off against adult villains yet The Witches is different. In this film we meet there creatures whose very purpose is to kill children. When they realise that Luke is listening to their schemes they first turn him into a mouse and then attempt to squash him. This film in no way protects the audience from the dark subject matter yet there is comedy as well as hope weaved into the bizarre tale.
Bruno’s parent’s reluctance to believe Helga’s story and the dim-witted hotel manager’s (a brilliant Rowan Atkinson) suspicion of the old lady and her grandson offset the darker elements of the film. The two boy mice are also cute little hero’s for the audience to route for.
In terms of visuals, the most stand out pieces are still the work done by Jim Henson’s creature shop who also produced the film. When The Witches are alone they remove their fake skin to reveals grotesque beings hidden beneath. Scary yet funny at the same time, the make up and prosthetics remain classic Jim Henson wizardry.
Of the entire cast one actress stands out as the driving force of the film and a haunting memory for children everywhere. Anjelica Huston plays The Grand High Witch. Masquerading as the head of a children charity, she is charming and high fashioned one moment and menacing the next.
Lovers of the original may have been dispelled by the alternate ending in the film. Yes the filmmakers opted for a lighter, more marketable ending than in the book yet still the film is a hallmark in British family films. Dahl himself disliked the film for the changes made but The Witches still remains a classic for children and adults alike.
For anyone who ever suspected that elderly women are more than they seem, The Witches remains one of the scariest, weirdest, and most brilliant family films and Dahl adaptations ever made, engrossing and propelled by a wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston.
Happy Roald Dahl Day!