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Haunted Childhood: Roald Dahl's The Witches

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

“Real witches hate children. Witches don’t murder children with knives or guns. That’s for people who get caught and witches never get caught.”

Picture this. You’re about 7 or 8 years old and your Primary School teacher has just announced that your class are all going to collectively read another Roald Dahl book because the last one you read together (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory or The BFG or something) was such a success. You and your classmates are all giddy with excitement because reading a book for the last 30 mins to an hour of class means no proper schoolwork. The teacher pulls out a small purple covered paperback. You can’t quite see the cover but you don’t care. You’re just excited to begin a new imaginary adventure. You wait with baited breath as the teacher announces the title and the premise of the book.

“This week class, we will be reading Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel ‘The Witches’”

Ooooohs and aaaaahs fill the classroom. Maybe 1 or 2 of the kids have already read it but nobody owns up. Curious title. A witch was something all the girls dressed up as at Halloween. Green faced with hooked noses and pointy fingers. Usually with a big black wart on her nose or chin and always…always wore a pointed black hat. You look around at all your classmates and everyone seems to be gushing with enthusiasm. This should be fun. The teacher then announces that the novel has been made into a film but that you are all too young to watch it just yet. That garners a little moan from the collective.

“It’s about a little boy and his grandmother who go to stay in a hotel and have an encounter with a group of evil witches.”

Okay, that sounds like hella fun times. It can’t be that scary right?

And it wasn’t. The book has some really suspenseful moments and the descriptions of the witches made for some wild and fanciful creative brain pictionary. But as far as I’m aware it didn’t give me or any of my classmates any nightmares. The book didn’t but the film adaptation most certainly did.

Last year the great Robert Zemeckis co-wrote and directed a worthy adaptation of Dahl’s classic (I’m not calling it a remake) starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Bruno. While it was a fun “Americanized” version with some great charismatic performances from the cast, that adaptation had little to no terrifying moments. So if you really wanna be scared shitless you have to go back to 1990 to the Nicolas Roeg helmed film where Anjelica Huston (pre Morticia Addams) cemented herself as cinematic royalty playing Miss Ernst aka the Grand High Witch aka one of the most hideously, gruesome witches ever put on screen.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a film about grotesque witches who love to kill children, directed by Nicolas Roeg, would be absolute nightmare fuel. After all this was the man who brought us ‘Don’t Look Now’, which contains not only one of the most haunting scenes in cinema (you know the one) but also one of the most controversial sex scenes too. Roeg was hardly an obvious choice for a fantasy film aimed at children.

‘The Witches’ follows young orphan Luke and his Norwegian Grandmother Helga, who is now his legal guardian, as they go on a staycation to a lavish, scenic seaside hotel. Their trip just happens to coincide with a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children convention led by a mysterious noble female named Eva Ernst. The convention is made up entirely of evil witches who are masquerading as women. Women who look just like your Mother or Aunt or teacher or next door neighbour. Luke accidentally discovers their secret, but shortly after is then turned into a mouse. Helga, Luke and his new mate Bruno must work together to find a way to stop the Grand High Witch’s plan to eradicate all the children in England.

It’s a fairly grim story for children to get their heads around and behind the fun and comical frolics is a myriad of nightmarish sequences that are still freakishly scary today. It’s crazy to think that the early passes of the film were actually even scarier than the finished product but Roeg decided to pull back a little bit after showing some early footage to his young son and gauging his horrified reaction.

Starting off with the prologue, Helga explains to Luke about the legend of witches and how to detect one in the wild. Helga describes how they disguise their gruesome appearance by wearing gloves (to hide their claws) wigs (to cover their blistered, bald heads) and having “revolting stumps where their toes should be” means they must wear “plain, sensible shoes.” Witches also have glowing purple pupils that can only be detected when you’re standing close to one. Helga continues by revealing that in her native Norwegian town a childhood friend of hers was kidnaped by a witch and trapped inside a painting for the rest of her life. This opening act was already severely traumatising and we hadn’t even met the coven yet. But what’s so traumatising about a girl being trapped in a painting you might say? Props to Roeg and how he plays the sequence out. The soft Scandinavian accent of Mai Zetterling, who plays Helga, as she recalls the story of her friend Erica is almost hypnotising in a way and the sheer simplicity at watching a young child carrying a pitcher of milk walk alone through a quiet, cobbled street with trepidation in her eyes, only to be snapped up by a middle aged woman is harrowing.

“What makes her dangerous is the fact that she doesn’t look dangerous.” - Helga (Mai Zetterling)

This whole sequence is terrifying as a child viewer but even more terrifying as an adult, especially if you’re a parent. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child but Erica’s parents didn’t just lose her, they had to look at her every day in the painting. An agonising reminder of their own guilt. Their negligence and inability to protect her from harm. Perhaps Dahl may have taken inspiration from stories that he was told as a child by his parents who grew up in Norway. It certainly feels like it’s a fairy tale that’s been passed down from generation to generation to help both warn and protect children against the idea of the “stranger”. When I was a kid growing up in the 80s I remember the “Say No to Strangers” advertising campaign and being warned by police in school about not speaking to anybody we didn’t know. This was a follow up from the “Charley Says” public service episodes from the 70s. Missing children was becoming more frequent in the UK during this time period and I’m sure it was a similar situation elsewhere. This only made the horror elements of the film all the more realistic to us kids. Roald Dahl didn’t have to hunt for inspiration for Helga, known only as Grandmamma in the novel. According to his daughter Lucy she was loosely based on her own grandmother.

The most iconic sequence in the entire film is of course the conference room scenes where Miss Ernst finally reveals herself as the ghastly Grand High Witch. Anjelica Huston completely knocks it out of the park here as the nefarious mastermind and leader of the coven. She is sexy, stubborn, intimidating and commands respect from her fellow witches and when she suspects the slightest insolence she doesn’t hold back in showing the room exactly who is in charge. She’s like a sultry cougar on the prowl that can inject both fear and fervour with a simple glance. It’s a truly shocking moment when she and the room repel their disguises and we get a mix of horribly, unsettling close ups and anxiety-inducing dutch angles of the witches scalp rash, dodgy teeth and purple eyes. Hilariously, most of the group consists of male extras wearing laughable curly wigs but that doesn’t hide the fact that the camera work here breeds a certain disquietude in the viewer by creating an uneasy sense of claustrophobia.

What makes ‘The Witches’ so memorable is the makeup and special effects and it’s really difficult to find anything that beats the Grand High Witch’s insane wart-riddled facial prosthetics, bulbous back hump and disturbingly long, boney fingers that seem to linger in the air like a foul stench everytime she points menacingly at her audience. All of this good shit can be attributed to the magnificent Jim Henson (who served as Producer) and his amazing company of puppeteers and FX wizards. Sadly Jim passed away a few weeks after the film was released. His creations and the work of his creature shop is still being talked about today and their indelible mark on the industry may never be replicated.

Another scene that runs parallel with the conference room scene in terms of horrific imagery is the dinner scene at the end when the witches finally get their comeuppance and are transformed into mice themselves. Once again Roeg delivers on the dutch angles and intrusive shots of the witches faces as the realisation of what’s just happened overcomes them. Vomiting green mist and mutating into humanoid mice.

The sound design here alone is eerily unforgettable, especially when paired with discombobulating camera movements. And once again Huston doesn’t hold back. In an almost Bond villain-like fashion she marches robotically towards Helga screaming “You're doomed old woman. You’re doomed forever!” before coughing and spasming. But it’s too late. More distressing close up shots as Huston’s human face mask slips off in grotesque manner revealing a giant deformed rodent. Sort of like a cross between a smaller version of a skeksis from ‘The Dark Crystal’ and a meth addicted Roland the Rat. Chaos ensues as staff and punters attempt to stamp on all the mice which in itself is hard to watch. The Grand High Rat is captured under a glass cloche by Helga and swiftly disposed of by hotel manager Mr. Stringer via a meat cleaver.

While the conference room and dining room scenes are notable for their absurdity and chaotic energy, one of the most haunting sequences actually achieves its goal by being astutely subtle. Luke is on the run from the witches and resorts to hiding in a hedge just off the pathway surrounding the hotel. The Grand High Witch comes across a pram sitting idle beside a sleeping mother. She fawns over the baby threateningly before clocking Luke nearby and with one hand clutching her nose tightly (the smell of a clean baby is repulsive to witches) she releases the pram down a hill towards a short cliff overlooking the ocean. Luke must give chase as a group of witches cheer from the sidelines and the mother screams in terror. It is deeply, deeply disturbing.

There’s a few other scenes that still haunt me to this day. After being seduced by the promise of free chocolate, Bruno is transformed into a mouse as Luke gazes on from behind a screen. The sight of a rotund young boy snorting and squeaking and burping and shaking his body into convulsions as the camera cuts back and forth through the various different stages of transfiguration is genuinely hideous. It’s like a real life version of the infamous donkey curse scene from ‘Pinocchio’. What heightens the horror even more is the incessant cackling from the watching witches. There’s also something a bit creepy about Huston’s highly sensual, raspy breathing when Bruno approaches her. It’s almost like she’s on the cusp of climaxing. Luke’s initial contact with a witch outside while he is in his treehouse is also a scary scene. Anne Lambton’s harassing but slight performance as the Woman in Black has never ever left my consciousness. Her delivery of the lines “Little boys love snakes” and “She can’t hear you” is chilling. Something about her cadence and her facial expressions that just sends a shiver up the spine.

The film also excels in finding the right balance between horror and the comedic elements. It doesn't always succeed and at times the comical moments feel out of place, which sounds weird when talking about a children's movie. Bruno and his incompetent parents are clearly the respite, although they are more annoying than funny, and Rowan Atkinson’s hotel manager has his moments too.

There may be a little more going on here than just some witches wanting to kill all the children in the world. The novel received criticism about it’s portrayal of women with some critics claiming that Dahl was a misogynist and that the idea that only females could be witches would potentially be a dangerous concept to present to children. Silly to think now but it was a very real concern. It was banned in some UK libraries shortly after it’s release. There’s actually an argument against that train of thought because the witches are extremely independent and powerful “women” whose reliance on anyone other than themselves is non-existent. In fact Dahl also explained that witches “look like women. They talk like women. And they are able to act like women. But in actual fact, they are totally different animals. They are demons in human shape.” It deals with other far-reaching issues too like gender identity, superficial beauty and the importance of looking beyond that. It has some essential lessons for children although much of that went over our heads when we first read the book or watched the film.

While the film generally received positive reviews it was not financially successful at the box office. Since its release it has become somewhat of a beloved classic but Dahl was not a fan. He hated the ending because Roeg decided to go with the alternate happy ending instead of the original one that was filmed where Luke remained a mouse for the rest of his life. Cinematically the happy ending obviously works better and it was a necessary change because so much of what came before that ending was essentially a slightly watered down horror movie.

‘The Witches’ remains one of the greatest children’s films of a generation and both Nicolas Roeg’s direction and Anjelica Huston’s powerful performance will ultimately cement it in the history of cinema as being one of the scariest kids movies ever made.

- Gavin Logan

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