VOD film review: The Witches (1990)
Mark Harrison | On 04, Jan 2019
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: Anjelica Huston, Jasen Fisher, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, Charlie Potter
Watch The Witches online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Let’s start a new year with a film from the beginning of the 1990s. Although The Witches is still very much in our remit, it’s the first out-and-out horror film we’ve covered as part of this series. Just in case Nicolas Roeg’s film feels a bit out there, it does feature some fixtures of past 90s On Netflix selections, such as Roald Dahl, Rowan Atkinson, and some Jim Henson creations.
Based on Dahl’s novel, The Witches was filmed in the late 1980s but held back until 1990 as a result of its financier going broke. Released by Warner Bros after an extensive delay, it’s a film that freaked out 90s kids throughout the decade with its surreal and suitably horrifying treatment of the source material.
At the start of the film, young Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) goes to live with his grandma Helga (Mai Zetterling), after his parents meet with an unfortunate event. As an expert on witches, Helga is determined to make sure her grandson knows about the threat they pose to the young ’uns of the world. But little can prepare Luke for a confrontation with the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), who plans to turn all of Britain’s children into mice.
What’s striking is that it’s absolutely a children’s film made by the late, great filmmaker behind Don’t Look Now. Granted, Roeg toned the film down, based on his young son’s reaction to an early cut, removing scenes that he judged to be too scary, but the result is still brilliantly grotesque.
The film’s wild sensibilities are epitomised in Anjelica Huston’s utterly bananas performance. Her Grand High Witch is an iconic creation, bolstered by the excellent prosthetic make-up, but truly brought to life by her sterling work, which is by turns funny and scary. Pure evil has rarely ever been so fabulous.
Unusually, Jasen Fisher and Charlie Potter are relatively scarce as the young leads, lending their voices to the mouse puppets created by The Jim Henson Company. Aside from evoking memories of our recent rewatch of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the puppets represent Henson’s last film work before his untimely death. Between the make-up and the creature effects seen throughout, the more gruesome edge on display feels like the logical conclusion of the less fuzzy work created for films such as The Dark Crystal.
Happily, the supporting actors lend a bit of levity, from Rowan Atkinson’s finicky hotel manager to Bill Paterson and Brenda Blethyn as Bruno’s parents. As the only characters who are relatively untouched by the weirdness of it all, they provide some necessary context for the wicked and wonderful battle between witches and children. Meanwhile, the marvellous Mai Zetterling plays a savvier, more reassuring role as Helga.
Running for a tight 91 minutes, it’s paced within an inch of its life. Unfortunately, this is one of those rare films that would be near perfect if it ended just two minutes earlier. Although it really seems like the product of studio intervention, the film’s ending was Roeg’s invention.
This was a major upset for Dahl, who almost took his name off the credits as a result, and in hindsight, he was right to be cross. While the ending with Jane Horrocks’ strangely ambiguous witch is ostensibly a happier one, the film comes so close to acing the ending of the novel, then cops out in favour of something more conventional at the last moment.
Universally acclaimed – by everyone except Dahl, anyway – The Witches is an essential children’s horror film. For many of us, it was the scariest film our parents unthinkingly let us watch in our childhoods. Impeccably designed and efficiently paced, it perfectly captures the macabre quality of the source material, right up until the moment that it doesn’t.
The Witches is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.