Today marks the halfway point in the vault’s ongoing Tuesday series, Witch, Please!. At the peak of this witchfest is the aptly titled 1990 film, The Witches. It’s a film I’ve never seen, most likely because it seemed too childish for my teen self upon its release. Luckily, I matured into the Reel Whore that I am.
Like any responsible grandmother, Helga Eveshim (Mai Zetterling) is teaching her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) the important things in life while babysitting him. Important things like how to spot a child’s greatest enemy; a witch. Her seemingly fanciful tutorial proves very useful after Luke comes to live with his Grandma in the English countryside. The duo holiday by the seaside at the Hotel Excelsior, which is bustling with activity from the fifth annual convention for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or RSPCC for short. While exploring with his pet mice, Luke is cornered in the RSPCC’s convention hall, and his disciplined and bespectacled eyes sees the women for what they are; witches! While hidden, Luke overhears the latest plot by the Grand High Witch, Miss Eva Ernst ( Anjelica Huston); to have the witches use her Formula 86 to turn all of England’s children into mice! Luke knows he must warn his Grandma, and despite a ‘miniscule’ setback, he resolves to stop the Grand High Witch’s fiendish plot.
While many times I plan for films to share a common theme, it’s still amazing how unforeseen similarities between recently reviewed films materialize. In the case of The Witches, it’s the last film overseen by Jim Henson who’s first feature film, The Muppet Movie, was inducted into the vault just three weeks ago. Another interesting coincidence, Cher was considered for the role of the Grand High Witch before Anjelica Huston who was, ironically, first considered for Cher’s role of Alexandra in Witch, Please! kick-off film, The Witches of Eastwick. I thought it was interesting.
What’s more interesting is how delightful The Witches is! Anjelica Huston is wonderfully wicked as the Grand High Witch, and kudos to her for being able to sit through the eight-hour makeup effort that bestowed her with the hideous appearance of the witches’ true form. Her monstrous look is impressive as is the animatronic and puppet mice used to tell the bulk of th story.
As I’ve often heard, it ain’t spoilers if the movie’s twenty-three years old. Luke and his new-found friend Bruno (Charlie Potter) are cursed by the witch’s brew and become mice. I had my doubts that a mousy Luke would hold my attention, let alone concoct and execute a plan to thwart the witches, but I must say, director Nicolas Roeg’s uses of the aforementioned animatronic and puppet mice to great effect. Luke and Bruno scurry up and down the halls, above and below the carpets from floor to floor to enlist his Grandma’s help and avoid the witches that search for them. It’s great fun made more perilous by Luke’s diminutive state and made as realistic as possible by some great effects and puppeteers.
British comedy and BBC fans will recognize a few familiar faces in supporting roles. The Hotel Excelsior’s owner Mr. Stringer is the easily recognizable Rowan Atkinson. The hotel’s head chef, although lacking in the same level of excellence, is none other than Downton Abbey‘s Mr. Carson, Jim Carter. Bruno’s dad, Mr. Jenkins, is portrayed by Bill Paterson, most recently known for Law & Order: UK.
The Witches is based on the book by Roald Dahl, although Dahl apparently hated the Hollywood treatment the story’s end received. I will say, for a story that has some somber and violent overtones, the film version manages to tiptoe around the mortality and nab a PG rating. If your child, or you for that matter, isn’t ready to tackle the dark, adult themes of American Horror Story: Coven, you’d be hard pressed to conjure up a more engrossing tale of witchcraft than this.