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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Witches captures the diabolical spirit of its Roald Dahl source material

Illustration for article titled The Witches captures the diabolical spirit of its Roald Dahl source material

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The sequel Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters has us reflecting on stellar kid-lit adaptations.


The Witches (1990)

Aside from its misbegotten coda, The Witches beautifully captures the surreal grotesqueness of Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s book. The violence, menace, and food-related nastiness of Dahl’s tome are brought to the screen in all their horrific glory by director Nicholas Roeg, whose preponderance of cockeyed camera angles and extreme close-ups lend a fittingly bizarre quality to the fantastical tale. It concerns a young boy (Jasen Fisher) taught by his cigar-smoking grandmother (Mai Zetterling) how to identify witches: Look for their purple-tinted eyes, wigs covering itchy scalps, toeless feet, and attempts to lure children into their clutches with candy. After his parents’ death, he finds himself vacationing at a seaside hotel hosting a gathering of Great Britain’s witches. Operating under the guise of a royal organization for protecting kids, the villainous creatures are led by Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, a strutting and sneering black-clad beauty who plans to turn the country’s children into mice via her magical “Formula 86.”

While Fisher secretly overhears that scheme—and sees the witches mutate another boy into a rodent—he nonetheless falls victim to it, leading to a second half in which the boy is tasked with stopping the witches while in mouse form. Throughout, Roeg strikes an expert balance between comedy and horror, his material full of cartoonishly monstrous transformations (think Joe Dante’s Twilight Zone: The Movie segment “It’s A Good Life”), broad jokiness (courtesy of Rowan Atkinson’s hotel owner), and an overriding idea that gluttony—and the general act of eating—poses potentially lethal hazards. A late kitchen sequence stands as a direct inspiration for Ratatouille, albeit with an enhanced sense of danger that peaks when Fisher loses the tip of his tail to a sharp blade. Along with a Huston performance of elegantly seething evil, that sort of lethal threat gives The Witches a vitality all-too-often absent from children’s films. At least, that is, until its not-in-the-book finale—a happy ending that so betrays the story’s preceding spirit that it’s no wonder Dahl reportedly loathed it.

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