31 Days of Hell: The Witches (1990) - Reviewed

The late and distinguished British director Nicolas Roeg was no stranger to horror, having dabbled in the genre with his genre masterpiece Don’t Look Now, touching on moments of alien terror with The Man Who Fell to Earth and probing deep into the dark and disturbing alleyways of dangerous sexual obsession with Bad Timing.  What he’s not known for, however, is making family films for children, which Roeg with puppeteering master Jim Henson sought to change.  The end results of their collaboration could well be the most frightening children’s movie ever made!

Adapted from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, The Witches told the truly terrifying (even harrowing) tale of a young American boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher) who with his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) in England stumbles upon a coven of evil witches within a grand seaside hotel who plan to transform all of the children around the world into mice before murdering them.  Being the last film to involve Henson’s skillful puppetry and the first film Roeg directed ostensibly for kids, The Witches touches on everything from child abduction to attempted child murder and child endangerment, seemingly in a succession of one terrifying scene after another. 

Though the film is populated with adorable talking mice and features the comic talents of Rowan Atkinson as the hotel manager, make no mistake, Roeg’s film pulls no punches including a truly chilling encounter when a purple-eyed witch tries to lure Luke down from the safety of his treehouse with a snake (you read that correctly) and a bar of chocolate.  Luke screams in terror and upset for his grandmother before the witch calmly whispers ‘she can’t hear you’, a sequence sure to send shivers down the spines of kids and adults alike in equal measure.  Then there’s the makeup effects work of Henson and crew who provide the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston in and out of heavy makeup) with a visage that might actually conjure up more blood curdling screams than Freddy Krueger. 

From the get-go, this wasn’t going to be an easy title to go down the family entertainment pipeline.  This was as scary as anything in Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse and the finished product proved to be problematic for the novel’s author who was so incensed over the ending which strayed from the source he tried to have his name removed from the film before ultimately being convinced otherwise by Jim Henson.  Roeg himself felt he may have gone too far after seeing how his own child reacted to a rough cut of the film, with the MPAA censors demanding further cuts to obtain a PG rating. 

Family films and fantasy adventure stories have always been ones to tread a tightrope walk between enchanting and scary enough to thrill kids without making them shrivel up.  The Witches, however, winds up touching an unspoken nerve within parents and fears of their own children being snatched up by unknown forces never to be seen again.  As such, it’s a terrific young adults film with a plucky team of heroes at the epicenter battling centuries-old forces of darkness that will make a great addition to anyone’s Halloween viewing.  As a children’s or so-called “family” film, however, this is undiluted nightmare fuel!

--Andrew Kotwicki