As I said last time, Halloween is coming up, and I’m celebrating by watching all the Halloween-ish movies I have (and some I don’t have). I thought maybe I’d write about my film binge for others as well in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, it might inspire someone to watch something they’ve never seen (or maybe even heard of) before.
So today I’m jumping back to write about a movie I actually acquired and watched last week: Something Wicked This Way Comes, a 1983 film based on the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name – which started out as a screenplay itself, funnily enough. To be honest I don’t think this movie gets a lot of attention, probably partly because Disney tried to sweep it under the rug for so long.
That’s right: much like TRON and Return to Oz, Something Wicked This Way Comes was one of the products of the so-called “dark age of Disney” and proved to be a bit of a disappointment at the box office besides. As a result, Disney spent a long time sort of pretending that it never happened – even to the point of keeping their name off of one of the film’s DVD releases. Thankfully that’s changed, at least for the DVD release I’ve got – perhaps another sign that Disney might finally come around and embrace more of its “dark age” properties?
I mean at least incorporate it into your Disneyland Halloween stuff, for crying out loud.
But anyway, a summary for those of you who haven’t already seen it or read the novel: Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and his best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) are two boys on the brink of puberty living in an apparently-idyllic small town in the 1920s. But it soon becomes clear that almost everyone in the town has some deep desire or hidden regret lurking just under the surface of their quiet lives – including Will’s father, Charles (Jason Robards), who regrets that he fathered Will so late in life, believes his old age makes him less of a father, and is generally insecure about growing old in general.
Soon the mysterious Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his strange carnival enter into the mix, luring in townsfolk by granting their secret wishes (and ruining their lives in the process, forcing them to join the carnival). Jim and Will soon discover the true, horrible nature of the carnival and Mr. Dark tries to capture them, forcing them into hiding. They enlist Charles to help them evade Mr. Dark and defeat the carnival.
Then comes the most emotionally tense scene, which takes place in the town library where Charles works. Mr. Dark, knowing the boys are hiding somewhere inside, confronts Charles there. Charles reveals that he knows the nature of the carnival, and Mr. Dark confirms that the carnival thrives by feeding off the misery of others. Mr. Dark tries to tempt Charles into telling him where the boys are in exchange for making Charles a young man again, but when Charles refuses to yield, Mr. Dark instead gives him “a taste of death” and hunts down the boys himself.
After capturing Jim and Will, Mr. Dark returns to the carnival. Charles pursues him there and eventually saves both the boys, trapping Mr. Dark on the magical carousel (which can either age or de-age people depending on which direction it goes) which essentially ages him to death. The carnival is destroyed and the town is saved.
Overall the plot is pretty faithful to the original novel, which is unsurprising given that Bradbury wrote the screenplay as well. But while it’s pretty good in general, it still feels like the film is missing something. See, I first read the book back in high school and it quickly became one of my favorites, and when I first saw the film I was a little disappointed. I still can’t put my finger on why exactly, though there are a couple things I think could have been done better.
One would have been to cut back on the special effects, a lot of which were added after the fact and have very little to do with the heart of the story. Another, which I didn’t realize until I watched the film with other people for the first time and had to explain some things afterwards, would have been to make it a bit more clear that it takes place in the 1920s. World War One plays an unspoken role in the backstory of a lot of the characters, especially the amputee former football star and Jim’s mother; it’s implied that Jim’s father went missing during the war and even after all the years that have passed she still expects him to come back, which is how the carnival tries to lure her in towards the end.
That all said, the film is still definitely worth seeing, especially for Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Mr. Dark. Pryce just gives off this perfect mix of charm and menace that capture the character, who is at heart a master manipulator. Also worth noting is the Dust Witch from the carnival, played by the fabulous former blaxploitation star Pam Grier. While Pam Grier is not who I would have envisioned in the role while reading the book, she does an amazing job in the role and left me wishing that she’d appeared more often in the film.
Okay, enough rambling for now. Hopefully soon I’ll organize my thoughts about Return to Oz. Until next time, have a very merry Hallow and a happy new Ween!