I was all about to complete "Our Coven" -- our series of holiday witch posts -- in the traditional way when I realized that this requested review of The Witches that I'd written years ago had been lost from the internet! So we must repost with a couple minor updates. I hope you'll enjoy this look back at a key film from 1990.
Roald Dahl's macabre children's books are classics but they're resistant to movie transitions. Their memorable grotesqueries get smoothed over or the films don't get made at all. He disowned the film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The most successful adaptations are James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox. Before those animated films arrived, Nicolas Roeg transferred The Witches to celluloid. The resulting film is a seldom discussed oddity that's primarily remembered for an overacheiving star turn from Angelica Huston who plays the Grand High Witch, "the most evil woman in creation".
The Witches sets itself apart from other children's fantasy films straightaway. It begins with an grandmother/grandson conversation which is notable for its matter of fact harshness. This grandmother (Mai Zetterling) isn't at all concerned with giving her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) nightmares. She simply lays out all the ways in which you can spot witches and details how they do away with unsuspecting children. Adding to the frankess of her storytelling is the handheld camera work which is used in several scenes. It's hard to miss because you don't often see it in children's films, which are invariably slick. The camera choices contribute to the movies roughness which suits the material in tone but doesn't always add up in entertainment value. What's onscreen seems hampered by a limited budget: the sets don't have a lot of character, many scenes look flat, and some visual effects are too lo-fi. The entire budget seems to have been directed to the makeup effects which, to be fair, are very successful as they're both creepily sick and sickly funny. Yet, given the over produced nature of many successful children's films; Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch and the rest tend to err on the side of overkill, this might be points in The Witches favor depending on your point of view.
Divisive reactions to the storytelling and production values aside, there's one element that's a complete and total success: Anjelica Huston. The Boston, Los Angeles, and National Society of Film Critics all awarded Huston with their Best Actress prizes that year (in all three cases the award was also for her Oscar nominated lead role in The Grifters). When Huston first arrives in the film, outside of the hotel where the bulk of the film's actions takes place, she's greeted with a sudden swelling of the film's score. It's entirely redundant since you'd never miss Huston's unconventional powerful screen presence - she pumps up the volume all on her own. From her very first lines and tunnel visioned haughtiness its clear that she's having a ball with the role, and making very specific imaginative choices. She zeroes in on "the most evil woman in creation" tag and wears it with pride. Not for this fearless actress a glimmer of humanity, then. She comes across as completely alien, barely able to hide her contempt or impatience with anyone --witch or human-- who isn't somehow reflecting or contributing to her malevolent gleeful pride in her own diabolic plans.
The Witches' best remembered scene and pivotal centerpiece is an evil witch convention presided over by the Grand High Witch wherein she details her plans to turn all of England's children into mice. In the wrong hands this scene could get lost in its cartoon wackiness or the actor could get buried by the impressive makeup, but Huston is as much in charge of this movie as the Grand High Witch is in charge of the assembled women. Huston lets loose with all her imperious screen power and comic skill, and her lengthy silly monologue is a creepy uninhibited hoot.
In addition to this spellbinding and twisted turn, this same year she conjured up the exceptionally hard but wounded Lily in The Grifters, a cold mother and lifelong criminal. (Apologies to Kathy Bates and her wonderful spin on an unhinged fan in Misery but Huston should've won the Oscar) She followed these two meaty roles with a lauded comic turn as Morticia Addams in the Addam Family films. If you'd like you can even view her Morticia performance as a sweetened fusion of her two peak performances from 1990: misguided parenting with a touch of the macabre and an appreciation of the sinister.
Sadly, once you've seen the enduring special effect of Huston's work in this terrific scene the movie loses steam. The Grand High Witch turns Luke and his new friend Bruno into mice (as a prelude to her overreaching plan), and the rest of the film spends far too much time on their silly mousecapades as they try to thwart her evil plan from unfolding. Despite the odd pacing and a general lack of visual finesse including the movies overreliance on grotesque tilted closeups (to show off the excellent makeup work one supposes) the Witches is worth a look. It's often just strange enough to feel like a memorable children's book come to life. The makeup and puppetry effects are rather fun and even when they seem too low-fi for their own good they have an innocent charm to them (will today's CGI imagery, despite feeling cold and overused, take on a nostalgic warmth once it too becomes passￃﾩ?). You'll also see a very early Jane Horrocks performance --The "AbFab" women weren't the first witches she worked for onscreen --and the feature film debut of Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) as the mother of a boy turned into a mouse.
Most of all the movie is worth seeing for Angelica Huston's inimitable comic terror. Consider a double feature with The Grifters and you'll marvel at a star at the absolute peak of her powers. She'll make you uncomfortable. She'll make you laugh. She'll leave you anxious for every new scene. She'll have you plotting against Hollywood for not casting her more often or failing to properly use her when she does show up to work.