Its nearly three decades since this film came out. Watching it now – and yes I know that viewing old films through modern eyes can be as problematic as the “issues” that have, in the intervening years, become so glaringly obvious we can’t believe we missed them – it does seem to have it in for middle-aged women, ugliness always seeping through whatever clothes, make-up and wigs the witches use to hide it.
On the other hand, the movie offered a tremendous range of acting opportunities for middle-aged women, so maybe I should forgive the dig at our middle-years frumpiness when we’re told that witches have no toes, which means they can only ever wear sensible shoes.
2020 will see a new version of The Witches, one that will apparently stick more closely to Roald Dahl’s book. This time the action will take place in 1960s Alabama, with the Grand High Witch played by Anne Hathaway. Luke and his family are black, which will add interesting themes of power and privilege.
Roald Dahl himself was problematic (was that even a word in 1990?), though he was undeniably a great writer for children. His books never talked down to them and he had an uncanny ability to connect with their worries, their loves and crucially what they find funny. This version of The Witches certainly retains that character: “only once a month is probably safe” Helga tells her grandson Luke reassuringly, discussing bathing frequency after he’s discovered that witches prefer clean children.
His books are also realistically savage. Okay, evil covens of witches aren’t realistic (don’t @ me, or indeed curse me), but Dahl didn’t sugarcoat experiences that might resonate with children and their own lives. He knew awful stuff happened and that children can never be entirely protected from that. Far better to equip them with the resilience and the nous to cope, and maybe even fight back.
This film, directed by Nicolas Roeg, does have a different ending – in Dahl’s classic, the boy Luke remains a mouse, but one happy with his lot. Even so, The Witches movie is still a wonderfully full-on experience, chock-full of gleeful nastiness. (Which makes the witches getting their just desserts, after consuming bowlfuls of soup laced with their own mice-making potion, even more enjoyable to watch.)
Young Luke (Jasen Fisher) is staying with his grandma Helga (Mai Zetterling) in Norway. She’s at pains to explain to him the realities of witches, so he can protect himself if he should ever meet one: they have no toes, are bald, and loathe children, who smell to them like dogs’ droppings.
Then his parents are killed in a car accident, and he and Helga move to England. When Helga develops diabetes she’s advised to take a holiday at the seaside, so she and Luke move to a hotel where it just so happens a group of witches are having what looks like an AGM in the ballroom.
The big news, given to the witches by the gorgeously hideous (hideously gorgeous?) Grand High Witch Eva Ernst (a superb Anjelica Huston), is the invention of a potion to be added to sweets across the country, turning all English children into mice.
Luke befriends Bruno (Charlie Potter) who is staying there with his parents, though the chocolate-loving Bruno is the first to be mouse-ified.
The cast is an acting smorgasbord of the British great and good (though I can’t remember if, beyond Rowan Atkinson, they were all considered great back in 1990 when the film came out). Atkinson plays Stringer the hotel owner; Jane Horrocks is “nice” witch Miss Irvine; Brenda Blethyn, with a fabulous Mrs Thatcher hairdo, is Bruno’s mum; Bill Patterson his dad. The hotel kitchen, the setting for a raucous and bold attempt by the two mice-boys to destroy the witches with their own potion, has chefs Jim Carter and Roberta Taylor.
Some of the special effects – light streaming from eyes to destroy people – are poor by today’s standards, though the animatronic and puppet mice (Jim Henson was executive producer) still hold up. And the Grand High Witch’s “evil” make-up is phenomenal.
Watching her slowly peel down her human face revelling the revolting truth underneath is mesmerising. The witches sitting in rows awaiting her speech remove their wigs to display pustule-dotted bald heads, but Huston changes from an elegant, red lipstick-wearing, glossy-bobbed woman into a twisted monster with spots, a hideous nose, and a jutting collarbone, tufts of wiry hair dotted around.
She reminded me of those plasticised dead bodies where layers have been stripped away to reveal sinew, muscle and bone. (And though she looks to my eyes terrifying, my 7 year old wasn’t phased a bit.)
The creep factor is strong, particularly at the start, as Helga tells young Luke the story of her childhood friend Erika who was caught by a witch and disappeared – only to turn up a few weeks later in a picture hanging in her family’s home. First she’s in the window of the farmhouse in the painting, still in her knitted hat and cardigan she was wearing when she went missing. As the years pass she grows old too, eventually last seen as an elderly woman feeding the ducks before disappearing completely. It’s a terrifying idea, there but not there, and an eerie watch.
Roeg keeps up the pace, which means any occasionally ropy acting is quickly left behind. The hotel provides a range of locations for the different antics: from the genteel dining room to the frenetic kitchens, the bedrooms to the ballroom.
And though it’s an enjoyable experience for parents, The Witches retains a clear focus on its young audience. The visit to the hotel kitchen, so the mice can add the potion to the soup, is a clamour of people falling over amid clattering pans, slapstick but not silly – and with a mouse-view of the world, something that small children will relate to.
Despite the changed ending (two were shot and test audiences decided which should be used), this remains a children’s comedy horror film. The witches are genuinely loathing and loathsome. Eva’s glee when she shoves a pram containing an adorable baby down a grassy bank towards a cliff edge is a wonder to behold.
In an age when nearly everyone in movies, no matter how dreadful, requires a redemption arc, it’s refreshing to watch a film (aimed at children no less!) where we have to accept that some are irredeemable.
Read 7 year old Cassian’s 5-star review of The Witches.
Watch the trailer for The Witches: