Hocus Pocus has its moments, as do Coraline, Monsters Inc., and all the Harry Potter films. But there’s one movie above all others that is seemingly engineered, from start to finish, to scare the hell out of the children who make up its intended audience: 1990’s Anjelica Huston showcase The Witches.
Just in case you haven’t seen this movie despite over three decades of opportunity…
The Witches has a fantastic pedigree. It’s based on the book by beloved children’s author Roald Dahl, with creature effects by Jim Henson, and direction by Nicolas Roeg (whose 1973 film Don’t Look Now is packed with sophisticated scares. The cast, topped by a spectacularly vampy Huston, also includes Rowan Atkinson (The Witches was released the same year he debuted his trademark Mr. Bean character), Jane Horrocks, and Brenda Blethyn. Critics praised The Witches, but audiences didn’t really…get it.
In the nearly 30 years since its release, it’s become a cult classic, as movies that were misunderstood or under-appreciated in their time often do. I don’t have anything beyond anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I highly suspect its elevation to midnight-movie status is directly tied to both its unique blend of high camp and sheer terror, and the fact that anyone who saw it as a kid is probably just a teeny bit scarred for life.
Of course, that’s why it’s so fun to revisit, or even watch for the first time, as an adult. The Witches is about a nerdy little American boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his Norwegian grandmother (the wonderful Mai Zetterling) who endure multiple massive traumas before the movie even gets halfway through act one. Luke’s parents die in a car accident; Grandma gets diagnosed with diabetes (literally at Luke’s birthday party); and the newly tiny family unit pinballs from Norway to the English countryside before finally settling in a seaside hotel that just so happens to be hosting a convention of bloodthirsty witches. The film’s opening scene sets you up for evil violence against children, as Grandma tells Luke a bedtime story about her childhood best friend being kidnapped by a witch. The tragic event taught Grandma to always be cautious of witches in her midst; somewhere along the way, she tangled with a crone and lost a finger to the fight.
With Dahl’s book providing the framework, The Witches advises some highly specific supernatural traits to identify witches: glowing purple eyes, a propensity to wear wigs and boots (to hide baldness and a lack of toes), the ability to blend in anywhere, and a diabolical hatred of children. (To witches, children literally smell like dog shit, a fact the movie delights in pointing out more than once.) The purpose of their sinister convention, Luke discovers with surprisingly little effort—again, it’s a kid’s movie, so the plot is laid out in very broad strokes—is so that the Grand High Witch (Huston) can distribute a magic potion that all the witches in attendance will add to their candy-shop inventories. The ultimate goal? Turning every youth in England into a mouse.
Yes, that is an unsettling plan of action. These ladies are baaaad. But by the time you learn that information—and this is like a scant 30 minutes into the movie—your eyeballs have already seen what witches look like without their glamour. It starts like this:
And very quickly becomes this—note that the Grand High Witch has the distinction of being both the most beautiful and the most hideous:
If I was Luke, that’d be enough to send me on a one-way stroll directly into the sea. But he doesn’t get that chance, because before he’s had the opportunity to let any of this sink in—including witnessing another truly scary transformation, in which Bruno, a tubby rich kid who’s only a slight variation on Dahl’s Augustus Gloop character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, becomes Mouse Patient Zero—he’s racing for his own life, losing his glasses, beholding the worrisome sight of Grandma in a (curse-enhanced? Diabetes-related?) deep slumber, rescuing a random baby from witch-induced doom, and finally, after all that, being held down and forced to ingest the mouse serum.
Fortunately, Luke is really into mice—he has a pair as pets, actually. But once he’s an adorable critter himself (all praise to the the wizardry of Henson and company, who seamlessly blend shots of real mice with some surprisingly convincing, pre-CG special-effects mice), his peril increases a thousandfold. Will Luke be stomped to death by a high-heeled shoe? Caught in one of the hotel’s strategically placed mousetraps? Gobbled up by a cat, since where there are witches, cats aren’t far behind? Mangled by Bruno’s terrible, oblivious parents? Smothered in a pant leg? Chopped up by a chef or tossed into a deep-fryer?
Dahl, who died the same year The Witches hit theatres, famously loathed the movie’s ending. It incorporates a character that doesn’t exist in the book—frankly, she feels very shoehorned into the movie—and adds an upbeat sort of closure to Luke and Grandma’s situation that the author didn’t care for. Obviously, you can understand his frustration—and if that Guillermo del Toro/Robert Zemeckis version rumoured to be in the works ever comes to fruition, it may offer the Dahl family some closure of their own. But as far as Roeg’s version is concerned, by the time you get to that tacked-on ending you’re already begging for any scrap of mercy. Anything to wipe away the Grand High Witch’s petrifying visage for a few moments before she returns to haunt your nightmares well into adulthood. Remember—The Witches is rated PG! Show it to any impressionable kid in your orbit…or maybe don’t.