Aesthetically-minded avant-garde director Nicolas Roeg, daringly immature puppetcraft impresario Jim Henson, and nasty-whimsy peace-negotiator Roald Dahl is one of those divine, demonic accidents of circumstance you didn’t really know you needed. Easily Roeg’s most commercial film, but not a cash-grab judging from his delectably devious direction and satisfyingly cryptic editing, The Witches was still a commercial misfire. Which isn’t a surprise; even by the standards of the late-‘80s run of vaguely dark and dreary children’s horror pictures either adapted directly from Dahl or owing kinship to his spirit, The Witches is an insidious little devil of a picture, vastly more warped and spidery than even the Grand Guignol likes of Return to Oz earlier in the decade. It settles more for naughty than nasty, but the effects are heinously satisfying nonetheless.
Dahl always had an eye and a pen for the more demented energy of not only Germanic folklore but the slightly streamlined terror of early animation, from the horror shows that populated Max Fleischer’s surrealist black-and-white oddities to the often frightened middle-passage of Disney’s Pinocchio enlivened with a sense of consequence often excoriated form children’s fiction. His story about recently-orphaned Luke (Jasen Fisher) now living in with his grandmother (Mai Zetterling), is loomed over by an often silent dejection that feels defiant in light of the usually safe-guarded realm of children’s fiction. As if the tragedy of loss that instigates the film isn’t enough, the arrival of a witches’ coven in their hotel – a coven headed by the implacably out-sized Miss Ernst (Anjelica Houston) – is a continual source of ominous negative energy throughout the film that never truly dissipates.
The sinister water-retention is largely the project of Roeg and Henson in heated unison (they disagreed throughout the production quite a bit), buttressing each other’s ego to go bigger in a conflict that feels palpable in the film. Henson, in the final project he saw through to completion before his death, populates Roeg’s vision with his most grotesquely ornamented ne’er-do-wells, puss-encrusted and lined with the ice-ray of German Expressionism that both of these auteurs always held somewhere close to their heart. Without sacrificing motility or grace, Henson’s meaty concoctions grant the film a leverage, an authority, a mass of import that establishes a sense of violent potential lingering under their presences. These are creations that interact with the world, rather than – as with too much CG these days – floating above it.
Still, even as a collaborative meeting of reprobates, Roeg is the director, and if The Witches is hardly the firebrand of cinematic pandemonium his earlier films were, it doesn’t mediate itself into neutered, domesticated oblivion either. Roeg’s exploitation-sculpted camera refuses to stop and let the narrative have its way with him; this is a piercing, disreputable camera that instigates action and catalyzes chaos, flickering with canted angles and stop-start spasms of shifting time and sanity. The director’s beloved red, first discovered in his days lensing for Roger Corman in the early ‘60s on sinister Poe adaptations that The Witches owes more than a little to, is in full effect as well, as are invasive close-ups that coerce us to confront the titular villains rather than relax at a distance from them. Although Roeg and Henson fractured over the film’s happy ending, Henson’s original faith in Roeg’s slithering hard angles and psyche-shattering visual dynamism was well-founded.
With apologies to Fisher’s insouciance and Zetterling’s gravid charisma, Houston absolutely wraps the film around her finger (something she was wont to do at this point in her career). A whirlwind of venomous, serpentine charisma that dances between high-camp and sinister, statuesque invidiousness, there’s a wicked, gleeful sort of abandon to her brave performance, one that is not afraid to kindle emotion into a melting terror-show of free-wheeling bedlam. In the film’s most famous scene, the convention of witches where they first share their plan to turn England’s children into mice, the camera clearly loves her, not unlike a ghoulish satire of Norma Desmond or Eve Harrington.
Sure, the much-benighted ending is a casualty of corporate interference, and Dahl’s ending is superior and more latched into the tone of the movie more broadly, but the idea that an ending ruins a movie, rather than merely sabotaging it to some extent, is a paltry and unimaginative one rooted in the vise grip narrative has held over the cinematic world. Flawed though it may be, the lasting effects of The Witches are too infernal and diabolical to be trivializing or neutered by a few minutes of narrative comeuppance. Watching, we remember Roeg’s and Henson’s craft, rather than the niceties of a truncated narrative denouement.
This craft is also, ultimately, honestly, relatively spare. Which is where intentionality rears its ugly head and the relative limits of The Witches as a still-populist construct restrain its often disarray-seeking joie de vivre. Not to be a spoil-sport, but what The Witches achieves in comparison to Roeg’s earlier films is ultimately just ineffectual enough to disappoint relative to the sheer cinematic obliteration and eradication of his cavalcade of masterpieces perennially dotting the landscape of the 1970s. The Witches throws the poisoned apple out after it’s only taken a bite or two, settling into a warbling hysteria without actually descending into full-on brazen mania. Still, it’s effective for what it is, even if it isn’t as pernicious or as smitten with its own lurking feral impulses as it could have been.