Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 24 October 2006
Source Warner Home Video DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
From an adult vantage point, Roald Dahl seems an unlikely candidate for enduring status as a beloved children’s author. In addition to the fact that most of the adults in his books aren’t rendered in an especially flattering fashion (grotesqueries only magnified by Quentin Blake’s vivid illustrations), Dahl’s unsentimental and often unflinching way of tossing his young protagonists into terrifying situations almost begs the question why parents would choose to share these works with their offspring. Children, on the other hand, have for decades devoured these books with the same relish as Augustus Gloop gobbled up Willy Wonka bars in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If there seems to be a disconnect here, it’s perhaps on account of Dahl’s gift for grasping the deepest fears of children (loss of parents being a chief one) and then twisting them into gloriously detailed, fantastical — and above all — vastly entertaining stories in which the outcast inevitably triumphs.
Growing up, Dahl’s books held me in thrall, and I remember being especially fascinated and scared by both the book and film version of The Witches. For a child, the premise posited by this work — that witches are not old ladies on broomsticks wearing pointy black hats, but rather everyday women who work behind counters in shops or desks in libraries — is supremely frightening for its suggestion of the everyday being laced with danger.
The movie begins, as the book does, on a violent, tragic note. The protagonist, a young boy named Luke, is both frightened and entertained by his grandmother Helga’s stories of children falling prey to witches. “Sparks fly. Flames leap. Oil boils. Rats howl. Skin shrivels. And the child disappears,” or so goes Dahl’s description of such an incident. The film, directed by Nicolas Roeg, is no less terrifying, as it depicts a pretty blonde girl with braids walking down an alley with a milk pail when a witch suddenly snatches her from the street. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s parents are killed in a tragic car accident that is largely glossed over by the book but is lingered on in the film, perhaps to emphasize the degree to which Luke and his granny must fend for themselves.
When Helga is suddenly diagnosed with diabetes, the two decide to spend some time at a seaside resort to rest. Little do they know, however, that the resort is also playing to host to a witches’ convention spearheaded by the Grand High Witch. As the witches gather and remove their wigs (real witches are bald, explains Helga) and kick off their shoes, the movie’s heretofore slightly sinister tone (this is Nicolas Roeg, after all) shifts to a more comic one. The special effects for the film were provided by the Jim Henson Company (Henson himself is credited as an Executive Producer), which does an especially impressive job of rendering the Grand High Witch in all her hideousness. Played by Angelica Huston, who turns in an appropriately over-the-top, heavily accented performance, the Grand High Witch functions as both a believable object of fear for children and a delightfully twisted comic creation that adults can relish.
The movie remains in large part faithful to the book, save for the ending, which is a little brighter in the latter, but as with all of Dahl’s works, it seems impossible to fully replicate the delicate balance between the macabre and comic. Still, while other directors have reveled in Dahl’s unique brand of humor, Roeg brings a slightly darker sensibility to the table, and as such, The Witches remains truer in tone to its source than perhaps any other film adaptation of Dahl’s work.