Release Date(s)1990 (August 20, 2019)
Studio(s)Lorimar/Jim Henson Productions (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D
The Witches was the third and final contribution to feature film fantasy by Muppets creator Jim Henson. It was released shortly after his death. As in his two previous films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, The Witches used Henson’s experience with creature creation and puppetry to make possible things in a live-action format that were previously possible only in animation.
Grandma Helga (Mai Zetterling, The Man Who Finally Died) is preparing her grandson, Luke (Jasen Fisher), for the possibility of encountering witches. Though witches are everywhere, having infiltrated society, they are seldom noticed. The key to identifying them is a purple light in their eyes and a frequent itching of the scalp. They hate children, equate their scent to dog droppings, and dedicate their lives to destroying them.
Luke’s first encounter with a witch is at the home of Grandma Helga, who is caring for him following the death of his parents. Grandmother and grandson take a seaside vacation at a hotel in Cornwall, where Luke discovers that a crowd of witches has gathered for a convention led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston). At that meeting, a nefarious plan is revealed. A special secret formula that turns all who swallow it into mice will be added to all the chocolate bars across England, making children, who love sweets, easy to exterminate.
Luke overhears this plan and is discovered by the witches, who capture and transform him into a mouse. In this form, he succeeds in escaping, and he and Helga work feverishly to stop the witches from setting their plan in motion.
Adapted by screenwriter Alan Scott from a children’s novel by Roald Dahl, The Witches has a storybook look with sumptuous production design. The premise is unsettling. Witches are ubiquitous. They live all over the world, work at ordinary jobs, dress in typical clothing. The thing that makes them so dangerous is that they don’t look dangerous, so most people have no warning when suddenly encountering them.
There are some genuinely disturbing sequences—the kind that imbed themselves in young minds. At one point in the film, a witch captures a young girl in a painting, where she’s doomed to live out the rest of her days as a miniature image. As time passes, the sad-eyed girl in the painting ages and her family watches her grow old on canvas until finally she fades away entirely. In another scene, a witch pushes a baby carriage perilously close to the edge of a cliff.
Director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) intended to remain faithful to the book, which ends with Luke living out his life as a mouse, hunting witches with Grandma by his side. Warner Bros had Roeg substitute a more upbeat ending. Even so, the fact that the goal of the witches to murder children is very dark and disturbing. The film is probably too scary and intense for young children.
Roeg assembled a first-rate cast for the film. As a fashionable personification of Evil, Huston treats her minions, strangers, and especially children with haughty arrogance. A highlight of the film is watching the Grand High Witch’s alter-ego, Miss Ernst, change into a bald, wart-ridden hag. Anjelica Huston’s portrayal is especially horrifying because we see what the witch actually looks like in a then state-of-the-art transformation.
Zetterling explains her tales of witch lore to Luke matter-of-factly, as if she’s telling him a bedtime story. Her delivery combines grandmotherly affection and gravity, with a generous helping of playfulness tossed in. Young Jasen Fisher plays Luke with childlike optimism, even after he’s turned into a mouse. He never loses his spirit, and is convinced that, with Grandma’s help, things will turn out OK.
Made before the widespread use of CGI, The Witches shows its age in terms of special effects. Occasionally real mice are used, but when expressions are required, the creatures look like the puppets that they are. The make-up, however, has stood the test of time quite well. The monstrous appearance of the Grand High Witch is truly frightening and has likely caused nightmares for those who saw the film as a child. Relying on stereotypes of the witch, the make-up emphasizes a long, hooked, hairy nose, glaring eyes, and a mouth that looks ready to consume anyone under the age of ten. It took in the neighborhood of six hours to apply, with an assortment of prosthetics that transformed Huston into an unrecognizable crone.
The imagery in The Witches is more memorable than the film itself. It uses odd angles and wide lenses to create intentionally distorted views, giving the film a kind of surrealism. Roald Dahl liked the film and believed it captured his book’s dark story (though he disliked the altered ending). It also manages to be a fun picture to watch. As in most fairy tales, The Witches has its scary moments, but through perseverance and focus, good triumphs.
The Witches was shot by director of photography Harvey Harrison on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This brand new remaster from Warner Archive features excellent contrast and clarity. Special effects don’t achieve the same look as CGI, and are the weakest at depicting the talking mice puppets, which don’t look real at all and are stiffer than real mice used in other scenes. The make-up on Anjelica Huston is outstanding, with details such as her long, carrot-like nose, bald head, and many warts dominant. Purple glowing eyes on women provide an eerie look and identify them as witches. The color palette varies from bold primary colors in the outfits of the disguised witches, Anjelica Huston’s blood red lipstick, and green smoke—along with lots of sparks—accompanying magical transformations. Director Nicolas Roeg shoots from a low angle when mice are scurrying about, and the image is intentionally shaky when a spell is cast that causes a building to implode.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Mai Zetterling’s dialogue at the beginning of the film is spoken very softly, making it necessary to raise the volume. Dialogue from other cast members is clear and distinct. Alan Silvestri’s score adds suspense and underscores action, as scenes require. Sound effects include noises associated with the witches’ spells.
The only bonus material on this Blu-ray release from Warner Archive is the film’s trailer.
The Witches begins at a leisurely pace and builds suspense until the end when a number of plot threads are wrapped up very quickly. The film contains quite a few images that might make little ones bury their heads. Jim Henson’s contributions add to the fairy tale nature of the story, and the film's combination of live actors, puppets, and elaborate make-up provide an engrossing, if sometimes unsettling, tale of good vs. evil.
- Dennis Seuling