The Witches (1990)



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Roald Dahl's books were a part of my childhood. I am surprised it took me this long to see one of his scariest books put on screen. It was so long in fact, that in 2021 a reboot of the movie will come to the big screen. I have previously reviewed Matilda and The Witches is in a similar style relying on practical effects and uncomfortably framed shots. It is a nice trip down memory road of how movies used to be made.

The film is filled with tragedy and perseverance. Luke, Jasen Fisher, loses his parents and lives with his caring grandmother, Helga, who teaches him all about witches. She is sent to a British seaside hotel to recover from a diabetic attack and brings Luke along. Rowan Atkinson plays the hotel owner in a very normal and straight forward performance, a nice departure from Mr. Bean. The hotel is also playing an unknowing host to the annual gathering of British witches. The Grand High Witch has a plan to turn all the children of England into mice with potion 86 via a cash-based takeover of all British candy shops. I assume it is 86 because of the bar term of cutting someone off, but there wasn’t much play off that.

The Witches is rated PG, but that seems low at times. The Grand High Witch, Anjelica Huston, transforms into a figure that will haunt your dreams. She must have spent hours in the makeup chair getting the prosthetics attached. Her first transformation is shocking when complete. Bald caps and men suffice to make the other witches’ ugly transformation. I would have liked a little more care put into their transformations. Most of the camera angles used during the transformation and darker scenes are shot from low down and set askew. This always makes a viewer unsettled and is a common trick in the horror genre. It is used to great effect here, just like Matilda. It had its desired effect of making me uneasy.

Luke and Bruno, another child at the hotel, fall victim to Formula 86. They find themselves turned into mice and we get a fun exploration of the hotel from a mouse’s perspective. The best scene is in the kitchen where we get a live-action version of Ratatouille. The animatronics blended with live mice is a great practical effect. I miss the time when CGI was more restrained.

The Witches is a great adaptation of a classic children’s horror novel. Care was taken making this film to make it as terrifying as Dahl’s original work. I would suggest parents watch it before sharing it with their youngest children. It is not Indiana Jones PG forcing PG-13 to be created but it is unsettling. It is funny at times and the story is endearing in the end showing the love between a grandmother and her grandchild after a tremendous loss. We all wish our grandmother was as loving and filled with wonderful stories and practical advice as Helga provides.

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©2019 by Sean Whitehurst