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.
The Grand High Witch Removes Her Face
In the film's opening scene, Luke Eveshim's (Jasen Fisher) grandmother, Helga Eveshim (Mai Zetterling), describes what witches look like, but her description hardly does justice to the Cronenberg-esque transformation the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) undergoes. The makeup and effects still hold up marvelously and remain deeply unsettling. She first removes her wig, then her face comes off to reveal a melted visage with a carrot-length nose and a drooping neck. The rest of her body appears ghastly as well - with rotting skin, she boasts foot-long claws as fingers. To make it extra eerie, Anjelica Huston injects a sexy swagger into the role to turn the character upside down.
Though not as disturbing as the Grand High Witch, the other witches are incredibly gross. Their feet end with stumpy toes, they have rash-covered bald heads, purple eyes, and rows of yellow teeth. Appearances aside, the witches are filmed in a manner that enhances their monstrous features. There aren't straight-on shots, and their faces are always distorted with a wide angle, making them all appear more demonic.1,348223Is this disturbing?
The Tone Of The Film Is Dark All The Way Through
Though marketed to children, The Witches gives off a tone one might expect from a full-fledged horror film. At the least, filmmakers approached this movie as if it were for adults rather than viewers under 13 years old. Tonally, the film eschews the airy nature that so many children's horror films have, where no goofy Great Dane or vacuum-riding sorceress provides a source of comfort or relief. No one ever undercuts the tension with a joke, and the characters all suffer real consequences for their actions.
Aside from the storyline, the film is shot in a way where everything appears distorted and surreal. When the witches drop their human pretense, they tend to slither. Also, Nicolas Roeg often angles the camera at the antagonists from below or to the side, warping the witches' faces into menacing expressions. It's subtle, yet horrifyingly effective.862147Is this disturbing?
The Mouse Transformation Is Incredibly Unsettling
When Bruno Jenkins (Charlie Potter), a reprehensible rich boy, gets tricked into showing up at the witch conference, it's revealed the Grand High Witch gave him a dose of her Formula 86. While he throws a tantrum for more chocolate bars, he begins his transformation into a mouse - this scene likely emotionally scarred anyone who watched this film as a child.
David Lynch-esque strobe lights come out of nowhere while Bruno sprays green smoke from his mouth, convulses, and grows giant ears before shrinking into a common house mouse. All the while, a group of witches points and laughs at him.935189Is this disturbing?
The Grand High Witch Kills One Of Her Followers
In case the extremely goopy face and foot-long claws don't give it away, the Grand High Witch is a real villain. She's straight-up evil and doesn't let anything stand in her way, including her followers. During the large witch meeting that occurs early on in the film, one of the witches disagrees with the Grand High Witch and catches a bunch of lasers to the face for her trouble.
Rather than merely disappearing, her entire body explodes in a blast of lightning and fire that's far more violent than any other children's programming from 1990.739205Is this disturbing?