Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and Alli watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
Britnee: From the mid 1970s until around the mid 1980s, Walk Disney Productions dipped its toe into the darker side of cinema. Escape to Witch Mountain, Return to Witch Mountain, and The Black Hole were live-action Disney films that debuted during the 1970s. Instead of the usual family-friendly Disney flick, these films fell more into the spookier side of the sci-fi genre. It was during the 1980s that this pattern of creepy live-action Disney movies became legitimately scary. It started with The Watcher in the Woods, a supernatural mystery starring Betty Davis. In 1983 came what, in my opinion, is the scariest live-action Disney film of all time: Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film is based on a Ray Bradbury novel that shares the same name. Bradbury initially wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay for a movie, but the movie never materialized, so he converted the screenplay into a novel. It wasn’t until many years later that Disney decided to make a movie based on the screenplay/novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is nothing short of a beautiful masterpiece. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town during the fall in the 1950s or 1960s. The landscape mixed with the quaint neighborhoods creates a cozy feeling comparable to a cold night with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The film follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a duo known throughout the film as “The Whisperers” because they served detention together for whispering in class. On a spooky autumn night, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival mysteriously rolls into town, and strange things start happening to the town’s folk. The carnival, led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is no regular carnival. Mr. Dark and his carnival associates, including a fortune teller played by the lovely Pam Grier, are interested in tempting the small town residents with their deepest desires in exchange for their souls. The two boys catch on to Mr. Dark’s true intentions, and it’s up to them save the town from the evil carnival.
There are quite a few popular films that seemed to be influenced by this not-so-popular movie. I couldn’t help but think of Hocus Pocus throughout. When the evil carnival crew is searching for the two boys, a cloud of green smoke enters their room, much like when the Sanderson sisters were looking for Dani in Hocus Pocus. There’s even a scene where graveyard statues have beams of light shooting through them, which is exactly what happens to the Sanderson sisters at the end of Hocus Pocus. Also, the dark train coming into town with booming orchestra music in the background immediately made me think of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
Brandon, were there any films that you noticed were influenced by Something Wicked This Way Comes, other than Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter series?
Brandon: I don’t know if I could cite a direct influence for any of these films, since Something Wicked was something of a commercial flop, but there were certainly spooky titles from my own childhood that came to mind during our screening: Jumanji, The Pagemaster, Lady in White, The Monster Squad, the live action Casper, etc. Unlike Something Wicked, this kind of spooky children’s fare is typically set in or around New England, presumably because that region has the oldest cultural history in America (post-European invasion, of course). It’s also difficult to define, because it’s a kind of mystic horror carved out entirely by mood. Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids in the entire world, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life. Something Wicked made less than half of its budget back at the box office and was considered to be an embarrassing failure by Disney executives who filtered director Jack Clayton’s vision through a long line of expensive re-shoots & re-edits before its release. Yet, its reputation has been enduringly positive for people who caught it at a young enough age on the home movie market. When watching Something Wicked with Britnee, she commented that she’d never want to see a crisper, digitally restored transfer of the film, since the VHS-esque grain of her DVD copy is essential to how she’s always remembered it. I really enjoyed the first viewing of Something Wicked as an adult, but I’m kinda jealous that she has aged along with a film in that way. I would have loved to have grown up with it in my life the same way I cherished the spooky kids’ movies mentioned above.
What distinguishes Something Wicked from a lot of those kids’ horrors, though, is its dedication to remaining truly nightmarish. This is by far both the creepiest and the most deliriously horny Disney film I’ve ever seen. Mirror dimension mysticism, bloodied fists, parental anxiety, haunted carnival attractions, and Pam Grier (who plays a witch!) teasing perverted men into a fatal sexual frenzy all certainly would have kept me up at night as a young’n. The film’s central conceit about a villainous carnival ringmaster who tortures people with their innermost unspoken desires is its most disturbing & rewarding aspect, though. More so than any of the kids’ movies mentioned above, Something Wicked This Way Comes reminded me of the supernatural space horror Event Horizon, another film where unspoken wishes & desires are actualized as real-life horrors (to a much gorier effect). This conceit is established beautifully in the ringmaster’s big library speech, where he explains to his victim of the minute, “We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. […] Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.” Disturbing stuff. The role of the ringmaster, Mr. Dark, was nearly cast as vampiric legends Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and I was fantasy casting Tim Curry as Dark in my head), but actor Jonathan Pryce more than earns his keep in that speech alone, giving me the willies even as an adult. His genuine creepiness in that exchange and the movie’s general theme of torturous desires are somehow far more disturbing than any of Something Wicked‘s specific nightmarish carnival images, which is a struggle for most horror films, made for kids or otherwise.
What’s most curious to me right now is just how much this movie was ultimately affected by studio interference. As Britnee explained in her intro, Disney wanted to intentionally take its brand into this darker, more adult territory, but its seems as if they weren’t fully committed to its implications. The re-shoots, the storied casting of Mr. Dark, Pam Grier’s relatively silenced witch, and Bradbury’s own admission of frustration with the final product all suggest a highly compromised vision, even if one that’s since proven to be enduringly beloved. Boomer, you’ve read the Bradbury novel the film is adapted from. Do you get a sense of what might have been lost or dulled in its big studio adaptation? Would this have been an even more nightmarish work if it were more faithful to its source material?
Boomer: I read an embarrassing amount of Bradbury in my youth and not so much since college. The thing about his body of work is that, although he is indisputably one of the great American writers in all genres (not just the science fiction for which he is most notable), his more grounded work has a tendency toward the saccharine. Although there’s something admirable about an old stalwart who clings to the exaltation of the majesty of youth, as a result much of his compositions end up lacking the humor, or at least the irony, of his stronger and more notable speculative fiction. That’s certainly the case with a lot of his later short stories–particularly grotesque demonstrations can be found in Driving Blind and Quicker Than the Eye–but the quasi-companion piece to Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine, is perhaps best at threading the needle of apotheosizing the magic of preadolescence without being too cloying.
Dandelion Wine, like The Martian Chronicles, was a “fix-it” novel, in that it was knocked together from shorter previously published pieces (the seams in Chronicles are much more noticable); Something Wicked was always intended to be a singularly cohesive work and thus has a clearer thesis, but it’s ultimately to the book’s detriment. The ghouls that make up Mr. Dark’s carvinal are defeated through joy, specifically those particular brands, the joy of boyhood and paternal love. Adult readers can find creepy novelty in the imagery, but the whimsy of the book means that only the youngest of readers can possibly dread the fate of the two boys. Bradbury never really had the heart to put children in truly dire straits in his stories (the nuclear shadows of two long-dead kids burned into a wall in a personal favorite “There Will Come Soft Rains” notwithstanding), so the novel’s conclusion feels foregone. By excising some of the more bathetic material for the adaptation’s finale, it works better as a climax, and there’s a more palpable sense of danger and urgency. Bradbury may have found the film to be flawed, but I found certain parts of the movie more engaging than the praise of youth that weighed down the novel. The film may not be better than the novel, but it’s as least as good as.
To add to the above discussion, I too found myself drawn to films like Something Wicked, if not that movie itself. I second The Watcher in the Woods as a pre-eminent example of this oddly specific subgenre and era, and further nominate The NeverEnding Story and especially Return to Oz. Return was likewise produced by Disney Studios in the eighties, and it has a striking cinematic resemblance to Something Wicked that I don’t think I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere. Thematically speaking, Stephen King’s Needful Things goes a bit deeper into the dramatic irony of giving people something that they want but denying them the ability to garner any happiness from it (the thematic connection is made manifest in the Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” which takes the title pun from Bradbury’s work while more closely parodying the plot of King’s). This concept, however, is at least as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” and probably has several other premodern ur-examples that I’m overlooking. Alli, what do you think of the use of this narrative structure and device, and how do you feel Something Wicked ranks as an example of them?
Alli: I like the be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, even though it is everywhere. The Twilight Zone covers this topic so many times and every time I just eat it up. The one that always gets me is the man with his broken glasses. The X-Files covers this humorously in the form of a literal genie. The stories I can think of it happening with kids are Coraline and Labyrinth. While they have female protagonists at the helm, it’s still kids fighting and besting this very real darkness based out of deep desires. Also, they both have super terrifying moments for family films. (There’s a strong argument to be had about whether or not Coraline is suitable for children at all.) In those, though, it’s the kids doing the wishing; in Something Wicked, it’s the adults endangering themselves. In that way it sort of made me think of The Goonies, another dark family film, because of the kids going on an adventure to save the adults while the adults are too busy adulting.
This narrative structure is really effective as a coming of age arc. Nothing forces teens to look outside of themselves and take responsibility like a crisis caused by selfishness. It fills a very real need and anxiety of kids that age, when people are expecting you to start growing up after years of having someone there to fix your mistakes. To have these kinds of stories played out for kids and teens to see themselves onscreen tackling really big problems not only works as an escapism from their own boring real world problems, but it’s empowering to see kids beat the odds against them. I think it’s great that Something Wicked kind of put those anxieties on hold and at bay by having the message that you don’t have to grow up too fast. These kids aren’t actually forced to grow up exponentially to save a bunch of adults; a real adult actually comes through for them. The kids are just running around being kids, which is ultimately perfect for them. Because of their child-like senses of adventure and mischief, they are equipped to take charge and save their whole town of adults living through real adult regrets. I think the flip side of the coin is that it presents adulthood as a really depressing time where you’ve given up on all your dreams, make do with what you have, and live a life full of regrets; it doesn’t really do anything against that fear. Mr. Halloway was able to break through his regrets, which at first seem to be mainly about being too old.
What I was actually really taken aback by is the way they keep mentioning Will’s dad’s heart, his age, and how he wishes he could play baseball with his son, but what he wants to talk to his kid about the whole time is an incident when he was unable to save him from drowning. Bradbury really leads you down the old man path and then jerks the leash abruptly in another direction. It just seemed like a weird twist and strange thing to regret, especially because his kid didn’t drown and didn’t even know who saved him at all. I guess maybe that’s why he was able to break free from his regret, but for how much they talk about the old age thing, it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as bad. I think it says a lot about his character that he cares more about his son’s childhood than his own pride. Britnee, what do you think about Mr. Halloway and his regrets? How do you think his compares to the other adults’?
Britnee: Mr. Halloway’s character is interesting indeed. At first, he sort of comes off as slightly similar to the beloved, depressing Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore. There’s just something about those big depressed eyes and all the weird death comments he made to William. I definitely agree that the audience is steered in the wrong direction when it comes to the big reveal of Mr. Halloway’s regrets because there is that focus on him being a senior citizen and the father of a very young boy for a good chunk of the film. Mr. Halloway makes uncomfortable comments about his age and heart troubles, but he isn’t obsessed with being younger or healthier. The core of him just want’s to be the best father he can be to Will, which leads to the love of a father and son being what saves the town and its people from being destroyed by the dark carnival.
The other adults in the town get royally fucked over because of their selfish desires: a horny barber’s desperate want to have relations with beautiful women, an aged teacher’s desire to be the young & beautiful woman she once was, a cigar store owner that wants to be rolling in cash, and an amputee’s desire to get his limbs back (which really isn’t as selfish as it’s supposed to be). Will’s father really doesn’t have a selfish desire other than the desire to go back in time and save his son from drowning years ago. Like Alli said earlier, he cares more about Will than he does about his own wants and desires, which makes him this film’s unlikely hero. I know many people who had elderly fathers when they were children, and it’s so rare to see a positive relation between an older father and younger son/daughter in film. It was really refreshing to have one of the main focuses of Something Wicked This Way Comes be the relationship between Mr. Halloway and Will so kids out there with the same parental situation don’t feel so alone.
A want and desire of my own for this movie would be to have more screen time given to the Dust Witch. I never read the novel in which the film is based on, so I’m unsure of how present she is in the book, but there’s always a little wiggle room for originality in book to screen adaptations. Brandon, do you think the near silence of the Dust Witch’s character made her seem more mysterious and dark or would you have liked to see a more solid presence of Ms. Grier’s amazing yet unknown character?
Brandon: To be honest, if I had any say in how to improve cinema in general, I’d probably start by making Pam Grier a more solid presence all around. Since her earliest roles in blacksploitation action flicks like Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, and (her all-time greatest) Coffy, Grier has been one of the most effortlessly cool, badass onscreen personalities in genre cinema. Just her mere presence in roles like the Dust Witch in Something Wicked or the robo-teacher with the cannon tits in former Movie of the Month Class of 1999 elevates the material tremendously, even while underserving what she could do with a bigger part. It’s wonderful to see Grier pop up in genre cinema throwbacks like Mars Attacks or Jackie Brown, but I can’t shake the feeling that she was never given her fair due. For instance, even though Hollywood couldn’t make room for the genre film icon in more serious dramatic roles she could surely handle, how sad is it that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they’re both miserably unwatchable? (My apologies to defenders of Ghosts of Mars and, less likely, defenders of Pluto Nash.) It seems odd to hire someone as recognizable as Grier for a character as central as the Dust Witch and not afford her a bigger part, but she still manages to do what she always does in the role: improve every second of screentime she’s afforded. Some of the most memorable images in Something Wicked are of the Dust Witch painted gold or frozen in an ice coffin or wearing white lace while overlayed with flying shards of broken glass. Grier is endlessly watchable in the part, even without the aid of significant dialogue.
If there were an easy path to beefing up the presence of the Dust Witch, it might have been to give her characteristics and plot-related duties of Mr. Dark. It may have been a blasphemous choice to toy that heavily with Bradbury’s vision, but you’d think with all of the casting scenarios surrounding Mr. Dark, someone might have considered it a little redundant to have two distinct villains running the carnival. Again, I do think Jonathan Pryce proved himself worthy of the role of Mr. Dark throughout Something Wicked, especially in his big library speech, but my love for Pam Grier (and for witch media in general) makes me wonder how the film might have been improved if the Dust Witch had absorbed a lot of his narrative significance & dialogue.
Boomer, do you see the value in keeping the dual threats of Mr. Dark & the Dust Witch separate or do they more or less serve the same function in the film for you? Is the Dust Witch’s relative silence the only thing keeping her back from eclipsing Mr. Dark’s villainous power or is there more to their dynamic than that?
Boomer: In the novel, the ghouls who make up Dark’s carnival are more of an ensemble, so the book! Dust Witch definitely has more of a presence than in the film. This is especially notable in comparison to Mr. Cooger, whose narrative appearances remain largely unchanged, give or take a few details like the exact machinations of his ultimate fate. To me, it feels like the Almighty Pam was likely cast early on in the process, when the producers were probably expecting to translate more of her story to the screen. I agree that the world at large is better served by increasing her presence rather than decreasing it; however, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, it makes more sense narratively to trim her appearances rather than Cooger’s. The Dust Witch is more integral to creating the atmosphere of Something Wicked, while Cooger is more necessary to the narrative. When you can use the language of film instead of the page to do the work of setting the tone, it’s a straightforward choice of what ends up on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say that the Dust Witch couldn’t have replaced Cooger altogether, but perhaps it was felt those actions would seem too inappropriate when performed by Miss Friday Foster herself.
Alli, you mentioned above that you were struck most by the illogical (and thus human) regrets that Mr. Halloway harbored for so long, and how the film subtly misleads its audience by letting him ultimately become the hero, if not the protagonist. Do you think this could be a result of affecting a child’s perspective of the archetypal hero father, balanced out by human failings, or do you see another narrative drive at work? Do you feel the film would benefit from similar inspection of the other adult characters, or no?
Alli: I definitely think there’s a certain amount of glorifying fatherhood that’s going on here, but I think there’s also the idea that only adults with imaginations, or who are in touch with their inner child, can help you as a kid. No, they’re not perfect, but they can support you. Mr. Halloway ended up not being the coolest or youngest dad, but he is the best adult role model. He believes in the power of books and stories. He saw an opportunity to use his strengths to be there for his kid and he took it. The idea that adults can make mistakes but still redeem themselves (to an extent) is an important thing for a children’s movie, no matter how scary it is, to get across. Then, there’s also the whole power of literacy thing.
The disabled barkeep could have definitely benefited from a similar arc, but every adult (who isn’t a librarian) is portrayed as dumb and selfish. Rather than these particular adults being weak minded and simple, maybe they’re just miserable? Small towns kind of suck. Of course the teacher wants to be young and beautiful again; these two boys are constantly ridiculing her for her looks. Who knows how many years, how many classes, how many children that’s gone on for. She also lives alone, so there’s probably some tragic lost love or other small town loneliness. Likewise with the barber. He could just be a very lonely man. Sure, that doesn’t excuse his casual misogyny, but that seems like it’s all an act. Jim’s mom has been a single mother for years! Of course she wants to find the man of her dreams. It’s harder to sympathize with the cigar shop owner’s need for more money, so I think he’s probably the least redeemable one.
Maybe the dark carnival can’t really tempt someone like Mr. Halloway for long, because he has a very complex reason for being regretful. Otherwise he seems to be a very happy man with a lovely family. Maybe they’re actually just not very good at doing their job and have been underestimating people and towns forever. That doesn’t make them any less spooky, though.
Brandon: A lot of Something Wicked‘s charm is rooted in its old-fashioned sense of class, the kind of horror aesthetic that calls back to eras like Hammer House pictures or Universal’s Famous Monsters boom. The carnival setting, mat painting backdrops, hand-animated effects, and even the tension of swiftly approaching trains all add wonderfully to the this effect, making the film feel more like a timeless work instead of a meticulously planned early 80s production from one of the largest corporations in the world. You can feel that classy throwback aesthetic as soon as the film’s blood splatter typeface in the opening credits and it remains its greatest strength throughout.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to briefly chime in on the question of the source of Mr. Halloway’s regrets & desires. I don’t believe that his regret over not being able to save his own son from drowning is too much of a swerve from his overriding desire to be a younger, more virile father. I assume, because the man who saved his kid was likely much younger & more physically able, the pain of that memory is actually just an extension of the same desire for youth & good health that always drives his self-loathing & depression.
Alli: I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole movie, with its fall setting and pumpkins all around, about another Ray Bradbury film adaptation: The Halloween Tree. It has a similar eerie, dark tone balanced out with childhood mischief and adventure. It’s also pretty educational. I’m curious why Bradbury seemed to favor setting his children related stories in the fall. I guess it’s the amount of atmosphere and folklore surrounding the time period; or maybe his favorite holiday was Halloween.
Boomer: For a different (and in my opinion better) take on this idea in novel form, I recommend Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices. It too focuses on an evil carnival that arrives in Small Town America in the first half of the 20th Century, and there’s a pair of young boys. It further increases the number of viewpoint characters to include three teenage girls, one of whom is the older sister of the Will equivalent. It has the nostalgia factor of the original Something Wicked novel, but without the treacle (although it has a very sci-fi twist that you don’t expect, given the general magical realism tone).
Britnee: I would love to see a Disneyworld/Disneyland ride that is based on the darker Disney films like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Could you imagine a hall of mirrors that gives you what most people desire most, and you have to find your way out before Mr. Dark gets you? Even just a backwards carousel with lots of green smoke coming out of it would be amazing.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
-The Swampflix Crew