THE WITCHES is a swirling cauldron of kindertraumas and how could it not be when it’s based on a book from the mind of Roald Dahl (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), cunningly directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), enhanced by the genius of Jim Henson (The Dark Crystal), and features a fearless performance by Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family). Some of the frights it delivers are of the creepy and existential variety (a young girl trapped in a painting forever) and some are loud, brazen displays of the hideously grotesque (Huston’s true form as the evil Grand High Witch is truly the stuff of the most vivid childhood nightmares). This PG-rated film can be adorable (talking mice!) and it can be absolutely horrifying (Roeg pulls no punches with Huston’s demise). There are moments of eye-popping creativity but even its quietest respites sparkle with something wonderfully off-kilter and authentically magical.
Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is a young boy who listens to his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) as she warns him of the presence of incognito witches all over the world (she knows the score because her childhood friend was snatched by a witch and was forced to live out her entire existence pitiably trapped in a painting). She informs him that witches have a purple tint to their eyes, clubbed feet, bald heads (concealed by wigs), and can smell the presence of children. This information becomes very useful when Luke is accosted by such a being while hanging out in his treehouse and especially when he and his grandmother inadvertently spend some time at a seaside hotel that is host to a convention of witches (masquerading as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Accidently, Luke learns of the devious witches’ plans to turn every child in England into mice, is turned into a mouse himself, and must find a way (with the help of his grandmother and a new friend) to stop the diabolical creatures.
THE WITCHES is tons of lively fantastical fun buoyed by Roeg’s endlessly creative and bold direction (apparently Roeg reluctantly edited out even more frightening bits when he witnessed his young son’s reaction to the film). It’s also got an admirable mean streak that ensures the viewer never feels they are safely snuggled in a story with a guaranteed happy ending. What really takes the film over the top is the marriage of Anjelica Huston’s gleefully evil performance and the incredible make-up and special effects provided by Jim Henson’s workshop. As the evil Grand High Witch Eva Ernst, Huston provides as much hypnotic dark charisma under heavy make-up (that took 6 hours to apply and six hours to remove) as without. The character is wonderfully larger than life and absolutely oozing with gloriously grotesque wickedness. No adult or child who witnesses this iconic nightmare creature’s remarkable unmasking is likely to ever forget it. Although THE WITCHES ends up relenting by tacking on a happier ending than the book (to Dahl’s dismay), this flick seeps pure hideous horror art and is a masterpiece of dark fantasy.