Everyone has at least one film they saw as a child that has stuck with them ever since. In most cases it’s because they brought you so much enjoyment (and you probably watched them far too many times). But in some cases, it’s because they scared the living day lights out of you. Maybe it was the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or, for me, the general creepiness of films such as The NeverEnding Story that you just couldn’t shift from your subconscious.
One film, however, managed to scare a whole generation in one fell swoop. The Witches was perhaps one of Roald Dahl’s most disturbing offerings, and the film definitely had much the same effect. Unlike most children’s films, it doesn’t have a twee beginning which slowly descends into darkness. Within the first 10 minutes, little Luke’s granny has told him a horrifying story of a girl killed by a witch whose image then ends up trapped in a painting. Then both of his parents die in a car crash. Even watching it as an adult, it’s pretty hard going.
Luke and his granny end up going on holiday to a hotel on the coast, where it just so happens that all of the witches in England are having a little convention. In steps Anjelica Houston, who gives a truly unnerving performance as the Grand High Witch. All of the witches have similar traits: purple eyes, completely bald beneath their wigs, and with a great disdain for children. But Houston’s witch is far, far worse. To say there is just a hint of the Nazi’s regime doesn’t even cover it. She leads her followers into a frenzy as she discusses how they will wipe out all of the children in England, promising them vials of poison to put in sweets. Her character isn’t just ugly like the other witches, she has become completely disfigured by her hatred. She vehemently despises children and relishes in telling her plan of turning all of England’s children into mice.
With director Nicolas Roeg at the helm, this was never going to be a standard kid’s film. With titles such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth under his belt, Roeg shaped The Witches into a truly sinister film. His years of experience as a cinematographer helped Roeg to create an oppressive, inescapable feel for some of the film’s core moments. At the witches’ convention in which Luke becomes trapped in the room with them, Roeg used handheld shots from Luke’s point of view, shakily watching events unfold from under the gap of his hiding space. Extreme close-ups revealed every mole on the witches’ faces and the purple glow of their wide eyes. As Luke tries to make his great escape from the room, the audience suddenly finds themselves leaping from the witches’ grasps, scrabbling across the floor between their legs, and jumping off of tables to try and reach the distant exit. The whole film has the feeling of a nightmare you can’t wake up from, no matter how hard you try.
Interestingly, this isn’t the film that Dahl wanted. He was reportedly appalled that the ending of his book had been changed for the film version (in the book, Luke remains trapped as a mouse for the rest of his rather short life), and also that his nameless hero had been given the name Luke and an American accent. Dahl also said that he found the film to be too grotesque and scary for children, with it being aimed more at an adult audience.
While the film may now look quite dated (Jim Henson’s mouse puppets definitely add to the comedy value a little), the story itself is timeless. Children will always be enthralled by tales of nasty creatures and the child heroes that outsmart them. Even if you see this film for the first time as an adult, it manages to leave a long-lasting impact. It is without a doubt one of the strongest adaptations of Dahl’s work (take note, Tim Burton), and while it definitely isn’t flawless, it’s full of such great performances and genuine scares that you forgive it for looking a little made-for-TV at times.