While there is an abundance of films out there that feature halflings forced into a fight against an all-consuming evil, about 95% of them were directed by Peter Jackson. But today, I want to pay homage to a film directed by Richie Cunningham (aka Ron Howard), produced by George Lucas, and predating The Lord of the Rings movies by over a decade. Call it sacrilege if you must, but Ron Howard’s Willow holds a place nearer and dearer to my heart than anything set in Middle-earth. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some hobbits, but I was introduced to the Nelwyn clan at five years old. And at that age, when you fall for a movie, you fall hard.
For those who aren’t familiar, Willow centers on farmer/would-be sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis). When he happens upon Elora Danan, an infant of the Daikini clan (aka tall people), he takes his first steps on a quest that will pair him with unlikely hero Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and a couple of tiny Brownies (think fairies but annoying) named Franjean (Rick Overton) and Rool (Kevin Pollak). Together, they must find the powerful sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) and protect Elora from the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean March).
It’s not hard to recognize why five-year-old Bryan would connect with a movie about a little guy who goes on an epic adventure and ultimately saves the day. But what I realized recently is that for a PG, family-friendly fantasy film, Willow is stuffed to the gills with horrific elements sure to catch the attention of a budding horror fan. And before you say anything, yes, I’m quite aware that Lord of the Rings has quite a few creepy elements to it as well. You go write your own damn feature about it. Today, I serve the Nelwyn.
One of the most prevalent horror tropes in Willow is the creature feature, particularly the trolls that play an important role in Willow’s journey. In his limited circle of experience at the start of the film, trolls represent the ultimate danger in the outside world, a fear that transferred right into me. Plus, those things are quite ugly—covered in fur, yet somehow suffering from male pattern baldness on their wrinkled, leathery faces. Honest to God, I’d rather deal with the two-headed dragon Willow accidentally summons rather than have to look at a troll.
As scary as trolls are, they’re merely an appetizer for the array of horrors unleashed by Bavmorda, starting with the hounds that tear apart a poor midwife before making their way to Nelwyn in search of Elora Danan. Described as a cross between boars and dogs, the look of the trolls was pulled off by a creature design team supervised by Nick Dudman, who pulled off the appearance by fitting Rottweilers with prosthetics for wide shots and using animatronic heads for close-ups. You always run the risk of sliding into silliness whenever your effects require slapping appliances on a dog (see A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 or The Killer Shrews as exhibits A and B) but then again, this is Industrial Light & Magic we’re talking about here. Plus, the sound design team created a howl for these hounds that almost sounds like a trumpet heralding impending doom.
Now, for those who prefer slashers to creature features, Willow has you covered in the form of General Kael (Pat Roach). He’s Bavmorda’s right-hand man and the owner of perhaps the most metal helmet of all time. This guy is that kind of unstoppable force that you associate with a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers. Between that freaky skull mask and a giant sword with serrated teeth, Kael would be just as at home stalking teenagers at a camp as he would storming castles. And that facial hair is something that must be seen to be believed. In most horror movies, the reveal of Kael’s face would be a showstopper in the movie’s climax, but in Willow, this dude cavalierly takes his helmet off all the time as if that wild beard and bushy eyebrows aren’t terrifying everyone in the room.
Then, of course, we have Bavmorda herself, who comes with a variety of horror tropes all her own. First and foremost, she is a witch whose primary goal in this movie is to kidnap all of the infants and murder the adorable ginger baby prophesied to destroy her. As the movie progresses, you can see her evil obsessions take their toll as she grows more and more decrepit, but this hint of body horror is nothing compared to the extended sequence where Bavmorda turns an entire army into pigs, with some practical effects that rival most classic werewolf transformations.
Sure, the endgame is some rather adorable looking pigs, but the road getting there is paved with painful contortions, as faces grow snouts and hands fold into hooves. Most of the more detailed shots involve Madmartigan, with Nick Dudman explaining in the making-of featurette that wide shots were achieved with simpler masks and suits, as it would have been impossible to pull off intricate transformation sequences on 200 actors at once. But the decision to focus on Madmartigan also works from a story standpoint, as it marks the first time in the movie where Willow is truly on his own. Madmartigan has had his back for most of the movie, so to watch him get taken out of the picture in such a grueling manner serves as an extra punch in the gut.
One of the things I appreciate about Willow is that while Bavmorda is about as evil as can be, Fin Raziel portrays the benevolent side of witchcraft that you don’t get in most films. Granted, we need to wait for most of the film for her to be transformed back into a human from a possum (and a crow... and a goat... and a tiger... and an ostrich), but once she’s back to form, she’s ready to take on Bavmorda while Willow (and, by extension, us) can sit back and breathe.
Or, at least we could if not for an errant spell blast that brings a particularly evil-looking altar to life, which then promptly chases Willow around the room. Five-year-old Bryan won’t soon forget the sight of a sentient chamber pot with a lid pushed open by human bones attacking poor Willow. I’m not actually sure what trope this would be. Maybe it’s the same subgenre as Death Bed: The Bed That Eats?
Of course, Willow’s hero journey wouldn’t be complete if he wasn’t forced to face off against Bavmorda, and the best part about his stand-off is that he doesn’t use some big, powerful, deus ex machina of a spell. He’s just able to distract Bavmorda with an Elora-assisted version of his “disappearing pig” trick long enough for Bavmorda to fall victim to the evil queen equivalent of tripping over a banana peel. In this case, the banana peel is a bowl of blood that, once spilled, apparently triggers the “utter annihilation” spell that Bavmorda had in mind for Elora Danan. There’s a lot of lightning, groaning, and all manner of stuff to scare the bejeezus out of me. I mean me as a child. A small child.
Now, I’ll admit that Willow is not going to make anyone’s hardcore horror lists anytime soon. But ultimately, Willow continues to capture my attention after 30 years, because when I watch it, I go right back to being the little kid just finding out that he likes to be scared. It’s a safe place to test the horror waters. You know that ultimately the good guys will win and the bad guys will be defeated, especially those damn trolls.
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