X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

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A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The popular myth about A Wrinkle in Time is that it’s an “unfilmable” novel, but there have certainly been more out-there, ethereal works of fiction adapted to the big screen with great success, so I don’t necessarily buy that. Ava DuVernay’s recent big screen adaptation of the children’s fantasy novel is being lumped in with past failed attempts, including a horrendous-looking made-for-TV monstrosity from 2003 that’s way beneath its pedigree as a big budget Disney release. I don’t think that comparison is giving DuVernay’s ambitious, bravely earnest self-empowerment fantasy enough credit for the admirably bizarre (even if frequently minor) successes it pulls from its loose-logic source material. I think the problem might largely be viewers’ emotional attachment to a novel that meant a lot to them as kids, but must be streamlined & reshaped to be presentable in a feature length movie format. The best novels leave a lot of mental space for readers to fill in the details, which is a luxury the visual medium of filmmaking cannot afford, so the difference between a reader’s mental picture & what ends up on the screen is always going to be a little jarring. While watching A Wrinkle in Time I thought a lot about Boomer’s review of Annihilation, which he called an “A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel.” To me, that A+ means the adaptation was a total success, faithfulness to the source material be damned. I’d more likely call A Wrinkle in Time a C+ fantasy picture, as I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about Annihilation, but in being even a passably enjoyable film that could’ve been improved upon, it still defies the idea that its inspiring novel is “unfilmable.”

Oddly enough, its adventurousness as an adaptation is not the only facet of A Wrinkle in Time that reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting has already expanded upon the surprising similarities between their dual mind-bending trips into alien landscapes (The Camazotz & The Shimmer, respectively) elsewhere, but what’s fascinating to me is the way A Wrinkle in Time makes Annihilation’s brand of sci-fi psychedelia palatable to children by softening it with Oprah-flavored self-empowerment & Disney Channel precociousness. Oprah Winfrey herself appears in A Wrinkle in Time as a godlike figure in outer space drag makeup. She & her lesser eternal-being underlings (Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling) relieve a depressed young nerd from grief over her NASA scientist father’s disappearance by offering her a chance to miraculously travel through space & time to rescue him from a realm ruled by Fear & dark thoughts. Backed by a queasily earnest inspo-pop soundtrack and blown up to almost kaiju-sized proportions, Oprah is in her element here. The movie is built around her career-long self-help messaging about overcoming fear & self-doubt. This advice & reinforcement is doled out to our troubled protagonist in encouraging slogans: “You have no idea how incredible you are,” “Be a warrior,” “You have such beautiful faults,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents; it’s how you use them that counts,” etc. The middle school drama she suffers enough to need this New Age inspo encouragement has a distinct Disney Channel vibe to it that will directly appeal to children, whereas adults are likely to see cheese. Oprah & her magical space crew can only prepare this child so much for the psychedelic darkness that will greet her (along with history’s most annoyingly shrill adopted brother & a blank page love interest) as she enters the nightmare landscape of The Camazotz to rescue her father, much like Natalie Portman’s complete lack of preparedness at the edge of the big evil soap bubble in Annihilation. The surprises and challenges that await her there are genuinely odd, distributing stuff and make any of the awkward precociousness of the build-up worthwhile for the emotional payoff.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how A Wrinkle in Time could have been improved as an adaptation, so I might as well offer mine here: this film should’ve been animated. As a modern, Disney brand exercise in CG spectacle, the film is already in a way a live-action/animation hybrid. Oprah’s five-point star silhouette & 50ft stature already make her resemble a Hayao Miyazaki character. Reese Witherspoon briefly transforms into a flying lettuce dragon that would have been a lot easier to stomach in a 2D animation context. The literalized encroachment of an evil Darkness poisoning the Universe with fear & self-destructive thoughts works a lot better in the proto Disney-Miyazaki collaboration Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland. There’s a lot of reverence for flight & Nature in the film that feels familiar to Studio Ghibli territory (not to mention the studio’s tendency to adapt female-penned fantasy novels); the recent animated release Mary and the Witch’s Flower telegraphed its melding of science & magic; last year’s Your Name. laid out a lot of solid groundwork for how its more intangible, psychedelic impulses could’ve been represented onscreen in expressive, illogical indulgences in traditional animation. God help me, I think I’m saying I would have enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more if it were a modern anime, the last major refuge for traditional, hand-animated cinema. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough anime to be considered even slightly informed on the subject and hasn’t read the film’s source material in at least two decades, my take on how to successfully adapt A Wrinkle in Time to the screen should be treated as highly suspect. I do think the logical freedom of animation could do this book wonders, though.

As a sucker for wide-eyed earnestness & soft psychedelia in children’s work, I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more than I found fault in it. The larger critical community’s dismissal of better works like Tomorrowland & Wonderstruck that operate within a similar tone means this movie never really had a chance for anything near universal appeal. That’s purely a matter of taste, though. What really bugs me is the idea that the movie was mediocre because its source material is “unfilmable.” In every other way Ava DuVernay’s Oprah-worshipping Annihilation Jr. psychedelia might have been only a mild success, but it’s in itself proof that an affecting, engaging adaptation of the novel can be (and now has been) done. There’s also huge chance that the film’s Disney-level distribution will get it in the hands of the people who need it most: depressed, unsociable middle school nerds who could use a 50ft Oprah-sized ego boost. I imagine those kids will then be led to the novel and form their own ideas about what is and what isn’t “filmable.” Those are the takes we should probably trust the most; feel free to ignore mine in the meantime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Much like the NFL, WWE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Disney has always had a knack for obsessively promoting & examining its own legacy. It wasn’t until the past few years that the insanely massive media conglomerate owned every single major player intellectual property imaginable, but judging by the way the company has publicly patted itself on the back since its inception, you’d think that was the case for decades. One of the more amusingly tacky ways this self-celebration has manifested itself is in Disney pop culture media’s synergy with the brand’s amusement parks – Disneyland, Disney World, and beyond. I totally understand the appeal, both for creator & consumer, of turning Disney’s most popular properties into theme park rides fans can physically visit & interact with. By the late 90s, though, that wasn’t enough for Disney’s insatiable need to publicly glorify itself. In the last two decades the company has begun to make movies based on its theme park rides in an an absurd act of reverse engineering. This started small enough with a Disney Channel made-for-TV original starring a late-in-his-career Steve Guttenberg, but eventually ballooned into a five feature film series starring one of the world’s most famous (and most despicable) movie stars, Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has been the biggest financial payoff in Disney’s gamble to market its theme park attractions on the big screen (recent diminished returns notwithstanding) and there have been a couple great Disney Ride films accidentally made along the way (Tower of Terror & Tomorrowland, namely), but for the most part people (mainly critics) have not been buying what Disney had been selling in those films: itself.

The first few attempts to adapt a Disney park theme ride for the big screen were meek acts of testing the waters. The 1997 Tower of Terror film was made for broadcast television. The 2000 space adventure Mission to Mars somehow nabbed a big name director (Brian De Palma, of all people) and went into wide theatrical release, but was based on a long-forgotten ride that had closed almost a decade before the film’s release. The ill-conceived (but oddly fascinating) 2002 Country Bears movie was marketed only for the smallest of children, to whom we shovel irredeemable garbage on an annual basis (i.e. Minions, The Emoji Movie, etc.). It wasn’t until the 2003 Eddie Murphy horror comedy The Haunted Mansion that Disney released a major motion picture meant to appeal to the entire family that was based on one of its currently visitable theme park attractions. The Haunted Mansion was an interesting experiment in the way it asked loyal fans of the Disney brand to fall in love with a feature-length advertisement for its own product: a haunted house “dark ride” you could visit at any one of its major theme parks. The experiment succeeded commercially, (rightfully) failed critically, and openly participated in the dual nature of Art & Commerce that always plagues the movie industry, although typically in a more hushed tone. Directed by nobody workman Rob Minkoff, who also helmed The Lion King & Stuart Little with an equal absence of passion, The Haunted Mansion is no more vibrantly alive than any of the CG spectres that torment Murphy’s family in its haunted house plot. The movie plays like a series of boardroom decisions that spiraled out of control into a family-friendly horror comedy that is neither funny nor scary and feels about as genuine in its genre nerdery as The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Just about the only interesting thing about The Haunted Mansion is its pioneering nature as a feature-length advertisement of a currently-operational Disney Park ride, the lowest of artistic ambitions.

Eddie Murphy stars as a money-obsessed Business Dad who spends too much time trying to grow his real estate business and too little effort connecting with his wife & kids. This stock Kids’ Movie Conflict is complicated when he interrupts his family’s vacation to check out a potential property purchase, the titular haunted mansion. The plot doesn’t develop much from there, besides the gradual reveals of every inhabitant of the home being a ghost with unfinished business who failed to cross over to the other side. The ghostly lord of the home mistakes Murphy’s wife for a long-lost love of his own, who can be seen in various oil paintings throughout the mansion, another Stock Movie Conflict employed by countless vampire & ghost pictures. Given that the ghostly home owner & his various ghost servants are white people from a bygone century, this interracial romance angle raises a few interesting questions about the racial dynamics of the house’s past, questions the movie isn’t interested in exploring. Instead, Murphy has to hurry to both prevent the most handsome, wealthy ghost from “getting jiggy with” his wife (kill me) and to save his kids from the other supernatural threats crawling all over the home: spiders, skeletons, a surprisingly effective Terrence Stamp. The rest of the ghostly cast is rounded out by the comic relief of the always-welcome Wallace Shawn & a Jambi-type performance from Jennifer Tilly. Will Eddie Murphy have time to save both of his children’s lives and prevent his wife from getting sexually assaulted by a handsome ghost? My guess is that you already know the answer, but are coming up short with a reason to care, which is more than fair.

Plot is not nearly as significant here as recreating the holographic ghosts & ghouls of the Disney theme park ride source material, which the movie actually does fairly well. The introductory title cards feel like a haunted house initiation, warning “Welcome, foolish mortals . . .” before recreating the ballroom of dancing ghosts that constitute the theme park ride’s centerpiece. Besides the CG ghosts that recall the live action Casper movie in tone, The Haunted Mansion also employs special effects master Rick Baker to provide some tangible atmosphere. A Harryhausen skeleton army & swarms of threatening spiders look especially great, with other haunted house effects like Videodrome-esque breathing walls, a Billy Bones-style zombie, and visual references to suicide by hanging tilting the story towards genuine horror. Singing barber shop quartet statue busts (an integral part of the ride) and a musical instrument seance straight out of an Ed Wood film (Night of the Ghouls, to be specific) are much more in line with a cutesy, safe-feeling horror comedy vibe, which is totally fine given the film’s nature as a cynically commercial Disney property. Terrence Stamp’s presence as an evil, ghostly butler cuts to the core of what’s wrong with the film at large. He’s genuinely creepy on a scene to scene basis, but often has to pause his schtick to deal with Eddie Murphy, who aims to annoy at every possible turn. At one point, Stamp even bellows, “If I have to listen to another word from that insufferable fool, I believe I’m going to burst,” which was the one line that got a legitimate laugh out of me. Listening to Murphy run lame bits about whacking spiders with magazines & ghosts “getting jiggy with” his wife into the ground for minutes at a time completely poisons any atmospheric mood or comedic ambition built by Baker, Shawn, Tilly, or Stamp. Murphy simply isn’t funny, which is a major problem considering how much screen time he’s allowed to devour.

Guillermo del Toro has stated publicly that he’d love to remake this film without the Eddie Murphy angle and, after Crimson Peak, it feels as if he already did. It’s easy to see what the director may have connected with on its basic level of being a haunted house dark ride attraction adapted into a feature. The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite Disney World rides, but I have no real problems or reservations with the way it’s been adapted to the screen, personally. How could I? The idea of believing your own hype so completely that you think your theme park attractions deserve a The Movie! version is so absurd that it’s kind of a miracle every single one of these Disney Ride movies isn’t as much of an artistic failure as The Haunted Mansion turned out to be. If it weren’t for the success of the Pirates debut just a few months later this could’ve been the end of the Disney Ride movie as we know it today, a fate that would’ve been very much deserved.

-Brandon Ledet

Tower of Terror (1997)

Expectations can make or break a movie-watching experience if you allow them too much headspace. I try to approach every film with an entirely blank slate, but it can be difficult to achieve that intellectual distance. For instance, watching a mid-90s Steve Guttenberg helm a made-for-TV kids’ movie based on a Disney World theme park attraction comes with its own expectation baggage that’s difficult to leave at the door. To be crassly honest, I expected a pile of shit. 1997’s Tower of Terror movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, then, shirking the stench of its compromised pedigree in nearly every scene. Even as a cheaply made VHS era kids’ horror starring The Gutte, the film is a massive improvement over Disney’s other haunted house amusement park ride adaptation, the miserable Eddie Murphy comedy The Haunted Mansion. It’s a charmingly silly, mildly spooky comedy that delivers just as much genuine entertainment as it does unintentional camp. I can’t parse out how much of my enjoyment was a surprise result of setting my expectations low, but that ultimately does not matter. What matters is that, against all odds, Tower of Terror is a good movie.

Steve Guttenberg stars as a sleazy photojournalist for a National Enquirer type publication, where he publishes hoax stories of alien autopsies & ghostly apparitions. Child actor (turned indie darling) Kirsten Dunst co-leads as his accomplice & niece, helping The Gutte fulfill his obvious destiny as a Goofy Uncle archetype. The pair get in over their heads when a mysterious old woman rope them into investigating a real life paranormal mystery, a 1939 incident at the infamous Hollywood Hotel that occurred on Halloween night. That evening, during a glamorous Halloween party (complete with big band swing music) a Shirley Temple/Baby Jane Hudson archetype mysteriously disappeared along with her drunk parents, her nanny, and a bellhop when the elevator car was struck by magic lightning. The answer to the mystery of what caused this supernatural event is explained upfront with the old lady’s tales of evil witchcraft and a Book of Souls MacGuffin. As Dunst & The Gutte search for this all-powerful talisman in the haunted hotel, however, the source of that witchcraft is called into question and the ghosts of the missing weigh in on what really happened that Halloween night. It all has very little to do with the actual Tower of Terror ride, but as a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of Hocus Pocus or Jumanji plot, it all works out as a perfectly entertaining children’s creepshow.

The actual Tower of Terror at the Disney amusement park is also shaped like a 1930s hotel and was actually utilized for the film’s frequent exterior shots to establish setting & mood. The ride is Twilight Zone-themed, however, which is a licensing choice this made-for-TV venture couldn’t afford to make. Instead, the hotel is utilized as a kind of standard issue haunted house contraption where headless figures brandishing meat cleavers, singing child ghosts dressed like the twins from The Shining, and elevators full of hellfire pop up from around corners to startle the audience. Instead of treating the film like a single trip through this haunted space like an amusement park ride, however, its ghostly mystery & fascination with witchcraft is spread over several days. This allows for long, bizarre speeches about “banishing children to the underworld” and how the lightning “half-zapped” everyone in the elevator, trapping them in limbo. Director D.J. MacHale doesn’t have many credits to his name, except that he helmed twenty episodes of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which almost makes him overqualified for the task. For better or for worse, the movie plays like a feature length episode of that show that just happens to star two recognizable faces (along with exciting bit players like Melora Hardin & John Franklin) and is based off an amusement park ride (complete with mimicking the ride’s elevator drops at its climax, naturally). Expectations aside, it’s a form of entertainment I’ve been trained to appreciate for nearly my entire life.

Somewhere around 2015, as with all Disney properties (including The Haunted Mansion, somehow), there were talks of remaking Tower of Terror as a new, presumably better-funded feature. You can easily see how the studio would find easy potential in that idea, even if they nuke this original version out of existence & return to the property’s Twilight Zone roots. If that idea is dying along with the theme park attraction (which is gradually being replaced with some kind of Guardians of the Galaxy ride), however, the original will still persist as a perfectly entertaining, family-friendly haunted house tour starring Dunst & The Gutte. Even that kind of a modest success exceeds expectation, which is as good of a litmus test for a movie’s worth as anything, I suppose.

-Brandon Ledet

The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999)

When we were listening to the Old People Rap Station the other day, the Janet Jackson/Busta Rhymes duet “What’s It Gonna Be” prompted me to joke about the brief time in the early 00s when all R&B videos looked like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. That’s when I realized I had never actually seen Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, despite being aware of it for more than half my life. The only reason I could conjure the made-for-TV movie’s aesthetic in that moment is because it was that heavily advertised before it first aired. It turns out, though, that it’s not a film you actually have to watch from start to finish to get the full picture. Just in knowing that Zenon was originally conceived as a pilot for a Disney Channel television series set on a space ship that vaguely resembles the set of the “No Scrubs” video is enough to clue you in on what the film can deliver. The only question, then, is how you’ll feel inhabiting that world for 97 minutes.

Imagine if the satirical wit was surgically removed from Clueless, the characters were age-regressed to junior high, and the whole thing were set on a space station. The titular Zenon, played by forgotten Disney Channel starlet Kirsten Storms, is essentially a futuristic Cher Horowitz in-training, far too whip-smart to obediently live a quiet life on her near-lifelong space station home. After acting out in a few too many (harmless) outer space pranks (often with the help of a sidekick played by a young Raven-Symoné), Zenon is literally grounded by being sent to live with her aunt on Earth. Besides her adjustments to the allergies, gravity, and Fahrenheit measurements Earth life presents, she also struggles with the pressure to beat the clock in two pressing concerns: 1) Saving her space station home from an evil corporation’s plans to corrupt it with a computer virus and 2) Making it back in time to attend a Microbe concert, which will be the first-ever boy band performance in space. I’ll leave it to you to discover for yourself whether she’s able to save the day and attend the big dance climax, but I’m not sure plot is the most important aspect of this fine work either way.

In the second act stretch where Zenon is stuck on Earth and dodging the flirtatious/contentious attentions of her new classmates, I shared in her painful longing to be back in space. The most fun the movie has is its writers’ room playfulness with futuristic Heathers slang, casually tossing out phrases like “stellar,” “lumerious,” and “zetus lapetus” as if they meant something to the audience. Other turns of future-phrase that tickled me: “Gossip travels at the speed of light,” “I wouldn’t miss it for all the stardust in the galaxy,” and “Terra firma . . . the firma the betta.” I also was amused by off-hand references to President Chelsea Clinton and to how the band Microbe is so old-fashioned because their songs still have melodies. If the Zenon concept had been developed into a television stories, as intended, it’s easy to see how this kind of goofy future-slang could’ve been fun weekly fodder for the nerdier set of late 90s Disney devotees. It’s probably better for its legacy that it wound up being a television event movie (with two “zequels”!), though, since it’s still remembered fondly by the folks who caught it nearly twenty years ago. I imagine it was a great gateway drug into sci-fi nerdery for plenty of burgeoning geeks and its girly version of a pigtails, jellies, and shiny lip gloss futurism still stands as a great encapsulation of a very specific time in pop culture visions of the future my mind will continue to conjure every time I hear the right note of old school R&B.

-Brandon Ledet

Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Ray Bradbury’s Return to Tormenting Suburban Children in The Halloween Tree (1993)

There’s something instantly familiar about the spooky, vintage Midwest suburbs of the Ray Bradbury-penned feature Something Wicked This Way Comes, our current Movie of the Month. Even watching the film for the first time in my 30s, I felt as if it had already been in my life forever, despite my familiarity with Bradbury’s work typically falling solidly under sci-fi, not horror. The spooky bygone suburbs of the film felt very much akin to horror movies I had grown up with as a kid, titles like Jumanji & The Monster Squads, a setting that’s been evoked & praised in so many Ebert reviews I don’t even know where to start citing them. Apparently, it’s a setting Bradbury had mentally returned to often himself, a spacial & temporal locale he had framed many of his children-targeted short stories & novels in, despite only one being adapted to a major motion picture release. Something Wicked This Way Comes does have some Bradbury-penned company in its nature as a feature length adaptation, though, just not anything with the financial backing of a live action Walt Disney production. Instead, its closest spiritual relative in nostalgic suburb horror would be a made-for-TV animated feature, a much cheaper mode of entertainment all around.

The Halloween Tree looks like an animated recreation of Something Wicked This Way Comes’s exact tone & setting, though it feels slightly behind that work in every way. Its fantasy novel source material was written in 1972, ten years behind Something Wicked’s 1962 publication date. It was produced as a late Hanna-Barbera animation, while Something Wicked was working with Disney dollars, which go a long way. Even in its central themes, which more or less amount to a history lesson on The True Meaning of Halloween, it pales in comparison to the much more complex subject matter of its predecessor, which explores intangible subjects like fear & desire. It’s difficult, then, to think of The Halloween Tree as anything but a minor work by comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s charmless or worth excluding from the Something Wicked legacy. Bradbury himself was at least invested in the work’s value, providing a storybook-style narration for its framing device. The hand-drawn animation is much more complex than most Hanna-Barbera productions are afforded. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’d also say it was nice to see a plot structure usually reserved for The True Meaning of Christmas applied to a holiday I actually give a shit about. The Halloween Tree feels somewhat like a scrappy echo of Something Wicked (which was something of a bomb itself), but it’s got enough of its own charm & personality to justify its existence outside that superior work’s shadow.

The spooky Midwest suburb setting The Halloween Tree shares with Something Wicked really only serves as a framing device. A group of kids preparing to trick ‘r treat on Halloween night see their sick friend’s ghost running through the woods just outside their suburb. Following his specter, they bump into a creepy old ghoul (voiced by an unrecognizable Leonard Nimoy) who seems to be threatening to claim the boy’s soul as he succumbs to appendicitis complications. In the process of bartering for their sick friend’s existence, the children are mocked for not understanding the meaning behind their various Halloween costumes: a mummy, a witch, a skeleton, etc. Chiding them, “All dressed up for Halloween and you don’t know why,” the old ghoul takes them on a temporal road trip through historical Halloween-type cultural traditions that relate to their costumes. Vignettes touching on Egyptian mummification, Stonehenge, witch trials, Día de Muertos, and so on provide meaning to the children’s various costume choices as they inch closer to saving their friend’s life through bleeding heart negotiation tactics. Much like with Something Wicked, the resolution to the threat of death is much more saccharine than the stakes appear during the conflict but the film could still potentially haunt an audience who catches it at a young enough age. The two movies’ real connection, though, is the way Bradbury makes a small crew of suburban scamps feel as if they’re the only kids in the world, saddling them with the responsibility of waging a metaphysical Good Vs. Evil battle.

To be honest, if I weren’t watching this film on Alli’s recommendation during our Movie of the Month conversation or I wasn’t aware of Bradbury’s involvement, I’m not sure The Halloween Tree would have immediately reminded me of Something Wicked This Way Comes. My mind likely would have gone more readily to Over the Garden Wall, a recent animated story that shares The Halloween Tree’s religious reverence for Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween costuming. The similarities shared with Something Wicked are not at all difficult to reach for, however. By the time the gang of suburban tykes reach an abandoned circus where the attractions are haunted by an evil magic, Bradbury’s wicked fingerprints are detectable all over it. The most immediately noticeable difference in this version of his aesthetic is that one of the kids is a girl, which feels out of line with Something Wicked’s distinctive boyhood POV. That detail was apparently added in its adaptation from book to screen, a smart choice that helps broaden its appeal. For anyone looking to introduce children to horror as a genre, you could probably do no better than a double feature of these two Bradbury-penned works after a long night of trick ‘r treating under suburban streetlights. He’s got a welcoming touch to his spooky children’s fare that should prove to be invitingly universal, even if the settings are so consistently specific it’s difficult to tell them apart from work to work.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor, The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

-Brandon Ledet

When Disney Got Cold Feet Over Getting Spooky: The Watcher in the Woods (1980) & Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

July’s Movie of the Month is a jarring entry in the Walt Disney canon, something much spookier, much more adult, and much less financial successful than what the company usually produces. 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a Ray Bradbury-penned horror film packed with enough ghostly carnival attractions, Pam Grier witchcraft, and children-in-danger stakes to distract you from the fact that it’s a Disney movie to begin with. Still, it’s easy to get the sense while watching Something Wicked that Disney wasn’t fully committed to the adult horror waters it was testing at the time. Casting debates, re-shoots, and studio notes softened director Jack Clayton’s nightmarish vision at every turn. Alhough the film still stands out from Disney’s usual saccharine tone, it could have gone much, much further. This kind of post-production backpeddling was a constant theme during Disney’s brief adult horror period too. Much like with Something Wicked, the studio’s tinkering revisions softened & distorted the original vision of its first outright horror picture, 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods. Both films survived their troubled production histories as cult classic favorites, not financial successes, but both also could have been much more memorably strange & terrifying than Disney ultimately allowed them to be.

Before The Watcher in the Woods, Disney toyed with the idea of an outright horror tone with films like Black Hole or the Witch Mountain series, but it kept those urges confined to the bounds of a science fiction aesthetic, focusing on topics like space travel & telekinesis. The advertising for The Watcher in the Woods promised an entirely new, fully committed shift in trajectory. The trailers boasted, “Walt Disney ushers in a new decade of motion picture entertainment with the following invitation to spend 90min on the edge of your seat.” The problem is that the company wasn’t sure it wanted to accept its own invitation to do so. Director John Hough was hired with the intention of producing Disney’s The Exorcist, but the constant barrage of studio notes that tempered its production consistently diminished the wind in its sails. This behind-the-camera tinkering came to a head when the studio insisted that Hough rush its ending to completion so it could screen coinciding with a commemoration of star Bette Davis’s 50 years in the acting profession. The original ending, which includes a monstrous alien puppet that does not appear in the theatrical cut, was left incomprehensible due to the time constraint. It then had to be re-shot into a much more easily digestible conclusion after hundreds of stop & start rewrites. If pulled off well, it could have been a mind-blowing, impressively dark ending to an otherwise mildly spooky picture. In its compromised form, it’s more of an all-too-easy release of futilely built tension.

As much as you can feel the studio notes shenanigans muddling its ending & ultimate severity, The Watcher in the Woods is still an impressively spooky Disney picture & an important precursor to what the studio would soon accomplish in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange lights flashing in the woods, blindfolded ghosts appearing in cracked mirrors, haunted English mansions & carnival attractions: The Watcher establishes early glimpses of the same children vs. immense Evil horror that makes Something Wicked such a classic. Bette Davis appears in the full evil old biddy capacity she was frequently typecast in following the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, except with a distinctly tragic vulnerability that had been missing since that role reinvigorated her career. Her instantly spooky presence is admittedly sparse, but suggests much of the film’s horrific tone to come as the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance unfolds. Occultist rituals, alternate dimensions, and, of course, the eeriness of the woods set the stage for a grand supernatural finale that not only was supposed to settle its overarching mystery, but also give physical form to a literal “watcher” in the woods (who appears to be some kind of evil crawfish in the original ending). It’s a shame Disney didn’t afford Hough the patience to see the original conclusion through in all of its spooky glory, but it’s still kind of incredible that they ever toyed with the idea of making a genuine horror film at all, so I guess I should be content with what’s left to be enjoyed onscreen.

Neither The Watcher in the Woods nor Something Wicked This Way Comes are the scariest live-action Disney films of all time. For my money, I’d assume that honor goes to the deeply traumatizing Return to Oz, which was soon to follow. However, as a pair they do make clear that at one point Disney’s plan to revitalize its brand (which was struggling by the 80s, believe it or not) was to experiment with legitimate horror film aesthetics. You can feel that decision lurking in Something Wicked‘s haunted carnival nightmare and, honestly, I do believe it’s the better film of the two. The Watcher in the Woods is a much more naked, deliberate push in the horror direction, though. Besides Bette Davis’s evil old biddy presence, the film echoes plenty of already established horror tropes: The Exorcist’s seances, The Shining‘s backwards mirror writing, the camera’s POV chases through the woods that recall both Jaws & the era’s more typical slashers. It would have been fascinating to see if Disney might have been more committed to this dark path if the success of The Little Mermaid hadn’t ushered in their animated division’s 90s renaissance. Maybe they would have eventually loosened the reins on their hired guns’ dark visions and allowed their live action horrors to run free. It’s literally too good to be true, though, so all we can really do is marvel at the fact that they ever got as close as they did to the horror film deep end before they inevitably got cold feet.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

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 BoomerBrandon, 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 MountainReturn 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 BrownFriday 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.

Lagniappe

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