Monday, October 19, 2020

Roald Dahl's The Witches

Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch.
"Real witches dress in ordinary clothes, and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses, and they work in ordinary jobs," explains Helga to her eight-year-old grandson Luke. "Witches spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest."

It's not a pleasant bedtime narrative, but Luke doesn't seem to mind. Plus, that knowledge becomes useful when Helga and young Luke--whose parents die in a car accident--take a holiday to a seaside resort hotel. The Excelsior is also hosting a convention for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 

While playing with his pet mice, Luke learns that the society is merely a front for a large gathering of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston). She has developed an elaborate plan to turn all the children of England into mice! Can Luke and his grandmother stop the witches or will he suffer the same fate as his new friend Bruno...who has already been turned into a mouse?

Luke as a mouse.
Made in 1990, The Witches is a devilishly delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1983 children's novel. Dahl, who penned children's classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, never shies away from dark, quirky plots. The film version of The Witches retains those elements. In fact, Helga relates a downright scary tale of a girl captured by a witch, who suddenly appears as part of her father's painting of a farm. One day, her image is in the barn; another day, she is feeding the chickens. The girl's image grows old over the years and disappears one day. Spooky stuff, eh?

Most of The Witches has a lighter tone, though, as Luke and Bruno spend the second half of the movie as talking mice. As opposed to using CGI characters, director Nicolas Roeg employs real mice and mice puppets created by Jim Henson. The puppets may not look realistic, but they are convincing enough and very charming.

The highlight of The Witches are the performances by the two leads, Mai Zetterling as Helga and Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. The latter shines brightest in a scene in which the Grand High Witch addresses her underlings, berating them for not eliminating enough children and then inspiring them with a motivational speech about how they will transform all the English children into rodents. If you've ever listened to a keynote speaker at a convention, you will appreciate the satire and Huston's impeccable delivery of her address.

Mai Zetterling as Helga.
Mai Zetterling is equally good in her more nuanced role as the elderly Helga. Earlier in her career, Zetterling played sexy leading ladies, appeared in serious Ingmar Bergman films, and even directed movies and TV series. She earned a BAFTA nomination for her 1963 short film The War Game.

The rest of the cast of The Witches is littered with familiar faces, such as Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Bill Paterson (Comfort and Joy), Brenda Blethyn (Vera), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice), and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey).

It's hard to believe that The Witches was directed by Nicolas Roeg. Early in his career, Roeg was acclaimed for challenging dramas such as Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). The Witches is a definite departure, but Roeg imbues it with atmosphere, genuine warmth, and a playful sense of humor. He and screenwriter Allan Scott did change Roald Dahl's ending. The author was displeased and threatened to have his name removed from the movie. Personally, I think the film's ending is an improvement on the book.


  1. I may have to give this a look. Dahl was very big with my younger sisters but was never my thing. Yet, you intrigue me.

  2. I'm not a huge Roald Dahl fan, either, but if this has Angelica Huston, sign me up!

  3. I clicked on the link to this review thinking you were going to share your take on the 1966 Brit film "The Witches" and lo! its not about that film at all. I find Dahl delightful so I think I'll give this one a try and see how it fares with my tastebuds. If Mai Zetterling is in it, I'm game.

    1. We previously reviewed the 1966 Hammer film The Witches (aka The Devil's Own). Here's the link to that very different movie: