[To help get you into the spooky spirit this October, the Daily Dead team thought it would be a great idea to spotlight some of our favorite witchcraft movies that just might cast a spell on you and make your Halloween season a "hexcellent" one!]
We were methodical trick-or-treaters. Every Halloween night, after hitting every house with a light on for what seemed like endless blocks of suburbia, my sister, cousin, and I would haul our plastic pumpkins into the living room of my parents' house and pour our sugar-coated contents onto the floor. It was there that the sorting—and eating—of each type of candy would begin, and it would always happen in the glow of whatever movie happened to be on TV that Halloween night. Sometimes it was a Friday the 13th film and other times it was Halloweentown. One year, it was The Witches, and let’s just say that it was a little harder to focus on organizing my Reese’s Cups on that All Hallows’ Eve.
Although considered to be a film that’s fun for the whole family, The Witches is wholesome entertainment with teeth—a big set of chompers that may not go for the blood-filled jugular, but still sends chills down your spine all the same. That’s really no surprise, given that the movie is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name. I was raised on stacks of Goosebumps and The Boxcar Children, but there always seemed to be a Dahl paperback within reach, and as imaginative as his books were, that guy could scare me just as much as Stine and Gertrude Chandler Warner (hey, some of those early Boxcar Children books have tense storylines). As someone who thinks that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could easily be considered a horror novel (think about it, kids get picked off in increasingly disturbing ways at an enigmatic man’s candy factory), Dahl’s written works and their film adaptations have always given me a sense of delightful unease. The Witches is no exception. In fact, it’s the one that scares me the most.
For the uninitiated, or those who are due to revisit its cinematic magic, The Witches doesn’t waste any time introducing viewers to its imaginative and haunting world… a world that is especially dangerous for little boys and girls. As Luke Eveshim’s (Jasen Fisher) Norwegian grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), explains to him one night over dinner and a cigar, the world is brimming with witches—women who might look ordinary on the surface, but who actually have purple eyes, square toes, and gruesome expressions hidden under fleshy masks that make their scalps itch. Yikes. Even more disturbing than the descriptions of these witches is their top priority in life: to exterminate each and every child from the face of the Earth. In the purple eyes of these necromancers, children are stinky, slimy vermin that need to be wiped out, and the witches have many ways of making this happen. In one of the movie’s most haunting scenes, a young girl is snatched away in an alley, only to appear in the painting at her parents’ house, where she lives until she becomes an old woman, one day disappearing altogether.
That introductory sequence alone is enough to give me nightmares, but that’s only the appetizer in the feast of fear that director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Allan Scott lay out for viewers. When Luke and his grandmother head to a hotel on the coast following a family tragedy, that’s when the real fun—and horror—begins.
Coinciding with Luke and Helga’s getaway is the 5th annual convention for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which in fact is the cover organization for witches, who are gathering at the hotel to seek guidance from the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), an old adversary of Helga’s who is responsible for taking off a piece of one of the grandmother’s fingers when she was a girl. This all sets the stage for the Halloween night memory that has both haunted and delighted me for decades: the ballroom scene.
As Luke cowers in the corner of the ballroom, he watches as the Grand High Witch peels off her mask to reveal her true form: a face that surely is responsible for giving an entire generation of young viewers nightmares that would last into adulthood. Masterfully conjured by a team supervised by John Stephenson (from Jim Henson's Creature Shop), including effects artist Stephen Norrington, the crew on The Witches created makeup magic with their work on this film. The Grand High Witch’s features are not just scary, they’re palpable. Her long, hooked nose, her flared nostrils, her sagging earlobes, her pock-marked flesh, and even the bony, corroded flesh of her shoulders—it all combines into one downright creepy concoction that would be right at home in the pages of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
It’s not just the Grand High Witch’s appearance that’s frightening, though, it’s the way Anjelica Huston plays the iconic character. Even before she reveals her character’s true form, Huston instills the Grand High Witch with a chilling demeanor and cold delight derived from pain inflicted on children (even her little touch of a painting upon her arrival at the hotel is unsettling considering that there’s an actual child trapped in that painting—perhaps put there by her hand). Huston relishes this role, making her just as deadly and scary whether or not she’s wearing her “skin mask.”
But there’s no question in my mind that without that skin mask, the Grand High Witch is one of the creepiest characters to ever lurk on screen. The fact that the practical effects hold up as well as they do over 25 years later is a testament to the crew’s hard work, and the same can be said for the other practical effects featured in the film, including the animatronics. Since it was executive produced by the great Jim Henson, it’s no surprise that The Witches features top-notch practical effects, with the mixture of well-trained mice and puppet work blending nicely once Luke and his newfound friend Bruno (Charlie Potter) are turned into tiny, scampering critters.
While the Grand High Witch ballroom reveal is what many viewers may remember from The Witches, the mice transformation scene in the film’s third act is just as impressive (and perhaps even more disturbing). After Luke uses the Grand High Witches’ potent potion against her brood, the dining room of witches go into full-on American Werewolf in London mode, painfully transforming into mice as the room is drowned in their shrill screams. Roeg effectively wrings every ounce of horror into this scene, zooming in on the panicked expressions of the witches’ half-human faces, filling the frame with whiskers, human eyes, and the claustrophobic sense that this story is not going to have a happy ending… at least for the witches, that is.
Akin to a no-holds-barred entry in a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, everything about this “family-friendly” tale is told through a deadly, dangerous lens. The Witches may be rated “PG” and it may have been made with kids in mind, but it never dilutes the source material from Dahl. Helga even treats her grandson as an adult, telling him in the opening minutes of the film that witches exist, and their highest priority is killing him and others his age by any means necessary. When Luke is later approached by a witch and her slithering snake friend while playing in his tree house, we realize that it was damn good thing his grandma didn’t hold anything back from him, too, no matter how horrifying the facts. Sometimes the truth—however unsettling—is best heard without any sugar sprinkled on top. In the world of The Witches, that knowledge is absolutely imperative to survival.
Watching The Witches as an adult years after I dutifully sorted my trick-or-treat haul that fateful night, it’s amazing how much of the film still scares me. Maybe that’s because a part of me is still a kid at heart, or maybe it’s because The Witches is downright spooky no matter how old you are. Either way, I’ll never look at a painting the same way again… you never know who might be watching you from the other side.