If there’s one defining image from Nicolas Roeg’s zippy yet cruel adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, it’s that of Anjelica Huston ebulliently pushing a stranger’s baby carriage down towards a cliff edge. While a gory death might then be averted, it’s an almost unfathomably sadistic moment, a shocking act of hate contained within a glossy PG-rated studio fantasy. Even 30 years on, as the line between films aimed at children and teenagers blurs ever more, Roeg’s 90 minutes of mostly unfettered nastiness remains a startling watch, a bitter little fairy tale to keep kids up at night with a fear of torturous death.
What makes The Witches so horribly effective, both on page and screen, is that this fear is aimed at a group that children have traditionally been taught to see as safe. It’s not just that the antagonists are women, it’s that they’re women who are made to resemble harmless family friends or neighbours, aunts or teachers, figures we expect to coo over babies, not try to murder them. Hollywood has forever fed into reductive and tiresome stereotypes of women as either mothers or molls, usually identified by their feelings towards kids. We’ve seen in countless films that a woman who loses a child also loses her sanity too, and that women unable to conceive are instead driven to steal a baby from elsewhere. The women we’re shown who don’t want children are usually glamorous femme fatales whose disinterest in motherhood is explained away by a more general sociopathy or unwanted spinsters who have seen their lives amount to nothing as a result. In The Witches, a large cross-section of women didn’t just not want children but they wanted to kill everyone else’s, an unapologetic and bloodthirsty desire for a child-free world.
Various feminist critics of Dahl’s book and Roeg’s movie expressed distaste with its portrayal of childless women as murderous hags, although in recent years, some have seen it as more forward thinking and less misogynist in its worldview. Author Caroline Kepnes views it as “a hilarious, feminist commentary on women, work and family” where men are ineffective and women possess more power, something that might prove horrifying to those frantically upholding the patriarchy. In an ingenious, info-packed intro, we’re given a beginner’s guide to witches courtesy of Mai Zetterling’s Helga, who tells her grandson Luke, Parenthood’s Jasen Fisher, how to spot one of them, an urgent lesson that could end up saving his life.
They’re foul creatures with square toes and blotchy scalps but wear sensible shoes and wigs to fit in. Writing for the New Statesmen, Jemma Crew views this as a way of the story rebelling against “aesthetic rules imposed on women”, a way of showing how so many are forced into impossible beauty standards by society and how men fear and criticise those who don’t conform.
Their aim is to infiltrate without detection so they can kill as many children as possible, but in order to evade capture they must avoid using “knives or guns” and instead find inventive ways to dispatch of bodies. In arguably the film’s most chilling sequence, we see a girl kidnapped by a local witch and then trapped in a painting where she’s forced to live out the rest of her life, alone, doomed, with her family, crippled, watching from outside. It’s one of many staggeringly hopeless notes we’re left to sit with, a trademark not only of the story’s original author Dahl, whose work often delved deep into gleefully nihilistic territory, but of Roeg, a director whose often perverse films were aimed squarely at an open-minded adult audience and who seemed a strange, dangerous choice for a slick Warner Brothers family movie.
But somehow, hiring the guy who made a film so filthy that it was shelved and then dumped by scared studio executives before shooting arguably the sexiest sex scene ever to make a film for kids proved to be a masterstroke. Roeg’s deft and entertaining late summer critic-pleaser maintained the sourness of Dahl’s source material while also transplanting the book’s sprightly pace. Sure, children are killed, but that hurtling pace and that Stanley Myers score sure make all that killing rather fun, huh? (Myers was also an unlikely choice, best known for his work on The Deer Hunter). Bar one controversial diversion which I’ll come to, Roeg doesn’t dampen the malevolency of the novel or his unusual, uneasy style, making certain unpleasant scenes that much more unpleasant with clammy, claustrophobic close-ups and unsettling Dutch tilts, shooting it like an adult horror movie, albeit one with goofy comic elements. His careful tonal control is matched by a ferocious performance by Huston as the Grand High Witch, a scene-devouring turn from an actor swiftly seesawing between camp and callous, a scary, funny and sexy villain without a visible shred of humanity.
While Jim Henson’s de-wigged witches are monstrously effective (it was the last film he personally worked on before his death), it’s those in disguise that prove more nightmarish, posing as polite and unremarkable representatives for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So while Huston’s unmasking scene remains a showstopper, there’s something more long-lasting about the surreal image of well-dressed women scouring the Cornish bluffs for a child they want to turn into a mouse. They succeed at downsizing our hero Luke, but he then goes on to destroy this particular coven before setting his sights on witches worldwide. This is where that aforementioned diversion comes into play. A happier ending was written that saw Luke turned back into a boy by a defecting witch who uses her magic powers for good, a spoonful of sugar heaped over the original, darker finale, which saw Luke remain a rodent. Dahl was incensed, and so Roeg agreed to shoot both endings and see which one test audiences preferred. Predictably, the happier endnote won out, and in response, Dahl threatened to take his name off the film, something Henson later urged him against (he still referred to the finished product as “utterly appalling”).
It does still clang to end with such jubilation after what’s come before but given how far the film goes in many ways, it’s an understandable sacrifice. In Roeg’s autobiography, he noted that early rushes from the film were far more frightening throughout but after road-testing it on his rather terrified young son, he recalibrated. As an eight-year-old who sat drenched in fear watching it for the first time, too scared and embarrassed to leave the room, what he kept in was enough to cause me night terrors for months after. Ultimately any concessions didn’t matter commercially as the film underperformed despite a string of glowing reviews. But fondness remains, so much so that a remake is due out next year from Robert Zemeckis with Anne Hathaway drafted in as the Grand High Witch and, in a comically Hollywood move, 50-year-old Octavia Spencer playing the grandmother (Zetterling was 65 in the original). There’s an interesting change in location – this time it’ll be Alabama in the 1960s – and Zemeckis has said it will be “a sociological spin” on the story, a head-scratching proposition that we’ll have to wait until 2021 to see play out.
Watching the 1990 original as an adult, nightmares long behind me, it’s a relief to see just how justified my earlier troubled reaction was, the product of a vicious little film that even now strikes a far nastier note than the majority of family-friendly studio offerings. It’s very much part of a particular era of darker kids films alongside Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal and Something Wicked This Way Comes, all of which were similar box office disasters, a sign that kids wanted to be amused rather than scared. While my briefly traumatised eight-year-old self might not agree, there’s something important about experiencing at least a somewhat neutered, PG-friendly form of horror at a young age. “Being scared is a rite of passage,” children’s author Joanna Nadin once said, “but a pleasurable one. I don’t see the gain in mollycoddling.”
Dahl and Roeg’s portrayal of purple-eyed child-killing sadists might be fantastical but it’s also brutally effective, a salient reminder for younger viewers to be more aware of their surroundings and to use trust sparingly. There’s no straight-laced PSA about not talking to strangers that could have achieved that fear quite so brilliantly as watching a boy get turned into a mouse or a girl get trapped in a painting. The Witches is a scary movie for kids who need scaring.