31 Days of Hell: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Chris Jordan reviews the excellent Ray Bradbury adaptation, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

"May I interest you lads in a Faustian bargain?"
There is something oddly and powerfully timeless about Ray Bradbury's iconic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes; a quality that makes it emotionally resonant on several levels, and that has granted it a place among the twentieth century's most classic horror tales. It is a story with great thematic depth; one that means something different depending on your age. If you're younger, it's a coming-of-age tale about two kids first encountering the dark side of reality as they face an evil that threatens their town. If you're older it's a bittersweet tale of regret, loss, and the futile desire to stop time from slipping through your fingers. Either way, there are some heavy philosophical themes at the core of Bradbury's writing, and either way it offers one of the most chillingly plausible tale of Faustian bargains ever written. All of this makes Something Wicked This Way Comes a very complex and high-concept tale to adapt into a marketable Hollywood movie; and a very unlikely one for Disney to want to attempt, let alone actually get right without diluting its philosophical core. Yet despite those questionable odds, here we have it: a truly excellent film version of the story, written by Bradbury himself with all of its darker elements not even slightly sugar-coated. It stands as one of the riskiest movies that Disney ever produced; a very grown-up film despite being allegedly family-oriented. Disney might tell you that the risk did not pay off: the dark, philosophical tale was greeted with shock and scorn by the studio's typical family audiences. Not only did it not do well in theaters, it also proved so un-Disney-like that the studio kept their name off the VHS box altogether, and licensed it to Anchor Bay to release on DVD, with the Disney name removed from the opening credits. Fans of Ray Bradbury, and fans of intelligent genre-defying filmmaking in general, will tell a different story: Something Wicked This Way Comes is as great as it is unexpected, and its word-of-mouth reputation has grown the film into a much-loved cult classic. This is one of the finest and most faithful screen adaptations of Ray Bradbury ever made, and is highly recommended.

"Do you like the chair? I got it while I was in Brazil."
It is just before Halloween, in a small town in what appears to be the late-1920s. Two boys are just growing up, and their parents and parents' friends are just getting old. They all have ways in which they want their lives to be different: things they want to do someday, or things they wish they had done. Amid all the desires and dreams and lost hopes, a mysterious carnival comes to town, which seems to be able to grant these wishes... for a price. Disney saw potential in the story for a family film due to its two young protagonists; and indeed, for kids the film would function as a compelling story of young friends who face a sinister force within the tents of Mr. Dark's Pandaemonium Carnival. But that's only half the story. We see the events equally through the eyes of the two boys and through the eyes of one of their fathers, played with warmth and wistful sadness by Jason Robards. Bradbury's thoughtful script has two equally strong emotional cores: the boys coming to terms with growing up, and the father coming to terms with growing old. Depending on your age, the script takes on a different meaning and morphs into possibly a different story altogether as you gain the ability to identify with both perspectives. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that kids might enjoy Something Wicked This Way Comes, but you have to be an adult to really understand its depths. The tale draws its power from the unfulfilled desires and dreams of its characters, and from the tantalizingly painful question, what would you give to fix the parts of your life that you are unhappy with? It's a shockingly serious and sobering theme for a Disney production, and it was wonderfully brave of the studio, screenwriter Bradbury, and director Jack Clayton to tackle that theme head-on, without holding back or playing it too safe.

"What, you thought just because it's Disney
they couldn't have a badass witch?"
While the studio probably would have rather gone for marketability (hence their awkward distancing themselves from the film on home video), someone there should be thanked for recognizing the great duo of artists at work, and respecting their vision rather than tampering with it. Ray Bradbury adapted the novel with great thought and care, turning his story into a compelling film without compromising its intelligence and philosophy. Director Jack Clayton was a perfect match to the material: he had already proven himself an expert in moody, thoughtful, literary horror-drama with his 1961 classic The Innocents, based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Clayton and Bradbury have excellent support from the film's first-rate cast: Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce in the central adult roles, with a supporting ensemble including Diane Ladd, Royal Dano, and Pam Grier. The two kids at the heart of the story are quite good: very believable as children right at that age when the pure innocence of youth is starting to chip away to reveal the world's darker side. Jonathan Pryce gives one of the finest performances of his career as the sinister, charismatic Mr. Dark, the Faustian proprietor of the carnival. Few characters have ever embodied evil so well, with a quiet, menacing-yet-reassuring deviousness that could so plausibly lure in lost souls. Pryce's perfectly balanced delivery gives great power to Bradbury's wonderful gothic dialogue, which boasts lines like, “We are the hungry ones. Your torment calls us like dogs in the night, and we do feed – and feed well.”

It is a bit of a miracle that this film of Something Wicked This Way Comes even exists; not just because it's unbelievable that Disney produced the film as it is, but that Hollywood did at all. While it certainly has some great spectacle and horror atmosphere, it is all about emotions and themes; it is horror in the existential rather than conventional sense. It seems destined to be a sleeper cult-classic rather than a mainstream hit, and it certainly isn't for those who like their horror a bit more straightforward or fast-paced, but those who like this style of storytelling will love this film. Bradbury's thought-provoking script and Clayton's moody and atmospheric direction are a perfect match, and the cast brings just the right gravitas to the material. Whether it resonates with you as a coming-of-age tale, a musing on regret and lost youth, or a bit of both, it is undeniably powerful in a relatable way that few horror films attempt. If you want a movie that is both great Halloween viewing and an excellent drama in its own right, this is it.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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