Nearly everyone can recall a film that scarred them beyond reason when they were younger—a movie that in retrospect probably wasn’t so bad, but at the time seemed obscenely terrifying. For me, and many other youngsters of the early ’90s, there’s no contest: It’s when Anjelica Huston peels back her face to reveal the twisted, gnarled visage behind it in The Witches. Even rewatching it as a grown-up, it’s hard not to feel apprehensive about that moment, which goes miles beyond anything you could imagine possible in a children’s movie.
If anything, Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is even more powerful as nightmare fuel today. It employs makeup and puppetry created by Jim Henson—making the film more scarily tactile than CGI-filled movies today. But the film’s resonance doesn’t just stem from the brilliant design, or Huston’s vampy performance. The Witches takes glee in exploring a specifically childish fear: that grown-ups harbor the desire to kidnap and murder them for no other motivation than pure evil. Hence the particular appeal of child-focused horror: There’s no ambiguity. Monsters are real, and they lurk where you least expect them.
The Witches starts slow, with the young protagonist Luke learning from his grandmother that witches are real and live around the world disguised as regular women. She tells him they kill children because children give off a repulsive scent only witches can smell. Midway through the film, Luke finds himself caught at a national conference of witches and beholds their true, horrible faces. He’s then force-fed poison by an angry horde and turned into a mouse before later being turned back into a boy by a repentant witch. Dahl notoriously complained that the film gave his dark book a happy ending—in the novel, its unnamed hero remains a mouse and chats with his grandmother about the short lifespan he has to look forward to. But not even that new ending could undo the 90 minutes of whimsical terror that precedes it.
Henson’s famed Creature Workshop played a role in many great child-centric horror films: There’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, two puppet-heavy classics of the ’80s that grasp the simultaneous appeal and terror of the unknown. You might also recall being terrified by the animated films of Don Bluth (The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven), which have a “dark side of Disney” quality and an obsession with death. Or perhaps The NeverEnding Story, which also used puppet effects and fairy-tale logic. Older cinemagoers might cite the surreal boat journey in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or the shrieking Child Catcher of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (whose screenplay was by Roald Dahl); more recently, the stop-motion director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) has harnessed animation’s ability to bring life to eerie dream worlds.
What these films all do is explore territory typically unknown to children. They introduce terrifying real-life issues like death and abduction, or in some cases, bring life to nightmares. Coraline plays on the fear that monstrous strangers might pose as your parents, while the loopy dreamscapes of Labyrinth are really just an allegory for the pangs of growing up and big sisterhood. That doesn’t make them any less scary: The great appeal of children’s horror is that it often confronts the most mundane fears. The Child Catcher (a monster whose catchphrase is “I smell children!”) is just a visualization of the warning given to every child to watch out for strangers—Dahl always specialized in exploring that murky territory, since children are always instructed to respect the ultimate authority of grown-ups, but treat most of them as hostile creatures. In The Witches, Roeg finds the dark humor in that. Practically every adult is a villain, except for Luke’s grandmother, but that tension is enough to allow the witches to hide in plain sight.
The Witches also stands alone as a children’s film directed by a veteran of grown-up horror who wasn’t afraid to use his full range of skills. Roeg directed a masterpiece of the genre, Don’t Look Now, a film set in Venice in which a couple mourning their lost daughter are stalked by a mysterious hooded figure. While Roeg has worked in other genres, he’s probably best associated with horror and thrillers, and The Witches manages to be as foreboding as his best work. Henson’s effects and Dahl’s storytelling are essential, of course. But when Huston sniffs theatrically in the air, detecting the scent of a child in her midst, and directs a mob after him? It’s the pure stuff of nightmares, whether you’re a kid or not.
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