The Witches (1990)

Roald Dahl was right. This movie has a bullshit ending.

Anyway, welcome back, readers, for this blog’s final month before we wrap up. Today we resumed Sunday Morning Movies with Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Dahl’s novel The Witches, which, until its final sixty seconds, is a tremendously entertaining and incredibly fun film. It was the last movie that Jim Henson worked on before he passed away, and while nobody really wants to get caught in a debate between two cultural titans like Henson and Dahl, everybody who agreed that this story needed a “happy” ending was as wrong as wrong can be. I was reminded of that episode of Friends where Phoebe realizes that her mother had been switching off movies before they reached their sad endings. Stop this film when the mouse and his grandma go to bed and you’ve got a splendid movie.

A few months ago, I wrote about The Watcher in the Woods and noted that the DVD release includes the original ending. I since joined the Disney Movie Club to grab some otherwise unavailable Blu-rays, and that edition of Watcher even includes the original opening, which was also dumped before it received a wide release. The Witches is presently only available on Blu-ray from Warner’s Archive Collection, with no extras except a trailer. I hope one day somebody releases a version of this with the finale that Dahl wanted.

As though to prove how insular and weird our lives have become over the last two years, there’s actually a remake of this film I’d never heard of! Robert Zemeckis directed it and I never knew of it. It came out last year, and when I mentioned this to our son last night, he said that he’d once seen trailers for it on YouTube. Baffled, I asked whether it has people turned into mice. Yep, same story. Except the new version features Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and the 1990 edition has Anjelica Huston. Wonderfully, the Grand High Witch has chosen a black and purple ensemble, just like Boss Witch in 1970’s Pufnstuf. I choose to believe they’re set in the same universe.

So the kid was completely charmed and thrilled and loved this movie to bits, as he should. I also enjoyed the heck out of it, and really liked the delightful realization that the hero kid and his grandmother have picked the wrong darn hotel to visit at the wrong time. It’s a beautiful one, mind, on a gorgeous Cornwall beach, but they could’ve chosen a different weekend and avoided much unpleasantness. Jim Henson and his team were on fire as always, and Rowan Atkinson, Anne Lambton, and Bill Paterson are terrific in supporting roles. We absolutely loved the great photography and the real sense of danger as the mice scurry around the hotel corridors, desperate not to be seen.

I think the most impressive thing about The Witches is that it doesn’t play it safe at all. The kid’s ten and is made from some pretty stern stuff, but if we’d shown him this movie maybe just four years ago, he’d probably have been a mess! I really like how movies from this period were willing to play hardball with children and were ready to give them nightmares. It’s not only that the Grand High Witch is revolting, it’s just a gleefully mean movie full of people who cannot stand children. Even for a Roald Dahl adaptation, this adult world is remarkably anti-kid. At one point, a witch shoves a baby in its pram toward the cliff, and if you listen carefully, you can hear an entire movie theater full of seven year-olds gasp in horror. It may not be as perfect an adaptation as Matilda would be a few years later, but I was pretty certain by the time this finished that its antagonist, Miss Trunchbull, has purple eyes and scalp rash.

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