Most people expect two things from kids films: to give parents an hour-and-a-half respite from their duties and keep kids entertained and glued to the TV. The Witches (1990) eschewed the usual expectations for children's cinema and set out to fill its audience with dread, making them fearful of chocolate for the rest of their young lives. A Roald Dahl adaptation produced by Muppets creator Jim Henson shouldn't fill its audience with fear, but those who watched The Witches are aware of how children's movies can be scary. If you've never gotten around to this terrifying film, you're missing out on a uniquely horrifying experience.
One of the many reasons The Witches reaches such horrors lies in the talents of director Nicolas Roeg, who also directed 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth. His non-linear storytelling and foreboding sense of atmosphere influenced everyone from Christopher Nolan to Steven Soderbergh, and his style gives this children's film much more of a fear factor than most other kiddy flicks. The Witches makes for a seriously scary watch that's unconcerned with pleasing its audience. However, if you love horror, there's a lot to like in this movie.
While chasing Luke near the seaside, the Grand High Witch, disguised in her Miss Ernst costume, stumbles upon a baby in a carriage next to its sleeping mother. Miss Ernst coos at the child before pushing the stroller (with the baby in tow) down a hill towards a cliff. It's a moment of pure evil that audiences don't see in most movies, let alone a children's film produced by Muppets creator Jim Henson.
By this point, the audience already knows Miss Ernst has zero redeeming qualities, but this moment is meant to punctuate her rotten soul.
Though Nicolas Roeg's version of The Witches softens the harder edges of Dahl's novel, there's no getting around the central storyline: the killing of children. Dahl intended to remind young readers that death lurks around every corner and that the darkest secrets often reside in the most unassuming people.
In this case, owners of a soon-to-be sweet shop plan to kill every child in England via poisoned chocolate. Even before this plotline becomes apparent, the opening scene provides a voyeuristic look at the kidnapping of a young girl. Whether or not she was taken by magical means is beside the point, this is a kid being slaughtered on camera in a children's movie because she let her guard down.
A horrible fate awaits one girl kidnapped by a witch at the beginning of the film, a fate worse than many of those endured by characters in adult horror films. The girl, Erica (Elsie Eide), gets kidnapped and cursed by a witch while she's out buying milk. The hex entails spending the rest of her life trapped in a painting.
Though she moves and grows older, Erica can't speak or communicate with anyone in the outside world. Instead, she ages until she disappears. Erica's fate strikes a somber tone at the beginning of the movie, setting the stage for the existential horrors to come.
Before Luke and his grandmother abscond to a seaside hotel, Luke has his first run-in with a real-deal witch. At first, she appears to be a kooky woman dressed all in black, but then quickly reveals that she's a creep. As Luke plays in his treehouse, she calls up to him and begs him to come down, saying she simply wants to talk to him.
When he refuses, she tempts him with a snake that she pulls out of her purse, followed by a supposed big bar of chocolate. When Luke screams for his grandmother, the witch says that no one can hear him, so he should just go with her, which is easily the creepiest thing in this terror-filled fever dream of a scene.