Happy Birthday, You Ugly Witch
From time to time, I think of the little girl with the long blonde braids trapped in the painting. Sometimes she could be seen peering out of the farmhouse window. On other days, she was by the pond feeding the geese. Over time, her visage aged, her back hunched, her hair grew gray, and finally one day, she disappeared from the painting altogether. How a simple story within a story becomes a folklore of sorts, that has affected me well into my early thirties speaks volumes as to the impact The Witches had on my youth. Debuting in 1990, this visual iteration of the 1983 children’s novel by Roald Dahl hits the big 3-0, and by all accounts (despite some screwy CG) has aged well enough to provoke sleepless nights and waking nightmares in the next generation.
The combined visions of director Nicolas Roeg (notable for The Man Who Fell to Earth) and producer Jim Henson, birthed what has become noted as a cult classic, adding another layer to witch lore and cautionary tales. With Anjelica Huston at the helm as the “Grand High Witch,” paired with Henson’s practical effects and puppetry, any young impressionable child with good sense would be left wanting a nightlight at bedtime. Fortunately, we find sanctuary with Grandma, played by Mai Zetterling, and her unfettered grandson Luke, played by Jasen Fisher (last on-screen as a lost boy in 1991’s Hook). Though the gap between the children’s novel and the movie is only seven years, Dahl’s colorful and otherworldly characters are so well-formed, as though they are real, or at least were real. The tales have been passed on for a century or more – or so it feels like. What less could be expected of the man who brought James and the Giant Peach to life? The strength of this film is the aspect of nighttime storytelling that sends your mind reeling, added to its saturated visuals which conjure up what you had been trying to imagine.
“Real witches look ordinary,” Grandma explained to young Luke, his eyes widening
behind perfectly circular lenses. “Every country has witches,” she continued and listed
the tell-tale signs: “real witches” have a purple tinge to their eyes, they wear squared off
sensible shoes as they have no toes, they use wigs to cover their bald and scabbing
heads, they have a highly developed sense of smell, but worst of all, real witches hate
Straight away, our intrigue is captured by a pleasant and trustworthy looking woman who gently describes the sincere dangers of being a child to her peach-fuzz headed grandson.
“I don’t believe it,” Luke exclaims. To this, his grandmother reveals her nub of a pinky
finger, imploring that witches are out there, and they mean to do you harm. “Enough,”
Luke’s parents intervene as they prepare for a night out. No more stories before bed,
they say, but grandma pays no mind.
Sadly, Luke’s parents meet some tragic, unexplained end, leaving him in his grandmother’s care and propelling the story from Norway to England (I neglected to mention that our backdrop was a Norwegian holiday).
Possibly due to grief, Grandma succumbs to diabetes by way of chocolates and cigars, only to be remedied by rest and relaxation along the English coast. I would like to take a moment to fully appreciate Grandma’s long braided hair and long skirts, donning sterling silver ring and stacked necklaces, her cigar smoking, and chocolate-craving aesthetic: she is an inspiration. With Luke (and his mice) in tow, they trek off to an inn as per the doctor’s orders. How could they know that an entire convention of witches would convene over the same holiday to discuss a more innovative way to completely eradicate children? “The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” meets annually under the guidance of Eva Ernst (Huston), who we immediately suspect of being the Grand High Witch. A hoard of glove-wearing, purple-eye-glowing convention attendees fawn over Eva in anticipation of their secret meeting.
We aren’t left waiting long before seeing Eva’s true form, as we follow Luke and his two white mice into the convention hall where he plans on teaching his furry friends some circus acts. When the hall suddenly fills with hurried bodies and chatter, Luke hides, quickly understanding that these are no mere women, but the hideous creatures his Grandma had warned him about. They tear away their wigs, revealing crusty sores about hairless heads, pull off the shoes that hide painful stubs, slip off gloves to expose claw-like hands, though the masses pale in comparison to the grotesque, inhuman quality of the Grand High Witch herself. Anyone introduced to this movie as a child forever has scathed into their malleable minds the tearing away of face and hair, the protrusion of ribs, the extension of nose and finger, the melting skin quality of some heinous bird-like creature straight from the depths of hell. Seemingly, the more powerful the witch, the more deformed and nightmarish. Of course, Huston breathes life into the costuming and scared the little life out of me for years to come.
As if this transmutation wasn’t quite enough, in strolls Bruno, a plump and gluttonous little boy, lured into the convention hall with promises of chocolate. The Grand High Witch explains to her cohort that a new magic formula she has devised will transform a child into a mouse, making them far easier to destroy. With Bruno acting as the guinea pig, we see Henson’s handiwork come to life, as poor Bruno twists and turns, his body transforming into that of a brown mouse. The witches squirm and squeal with glee at this site, excited to put Eva’s devious plan into action. If only “real witches” didn’t have such an impeccable sense of smell, Luke might have gotten away unscathed, but he too was forced to drink the formula and is transformed into a mouse (a very cute one, at that).
Between puppetry and trained mice, the perspective of the story shifts greatly to that of Luke, leaving the viewer feeling more vulnerable than ever. A mouse can be stomped on. A mouse can be caught and gobbled up by a cat. A mouse can fall into a boiling pot of hot soup! I recall an uneasiness in watching this film, gripping my knees and hoping that no more harm came to little Luke the mouse. Against these powerful and inherently evil witches, how could a diabetic grandma and a small rodent possibly win? Well, by using the witches’ magic against them, of course!
After finding bottles of the formula inside Eva’s room, Grandma and Luke devise a plan to pour the entire contents of one bottle (500 doses) into the soup being prepared for the convention members. Ultimately, their plan works, rendering all but one lucky witch into scattering mice. Despite the witches’ defeat, Luke and Bruno remain cursed.
The medley of the reality of death, illness, predator vs. prey, and an ancient supernaturally evil archetype made The Witches a questionable children’s story. As I found in forums discussing this movie, many thirty-somethings had the same take away: “that movie f*cked me up.” Perhaps it was the late 80’s, early 90’s thing? Perhaps parents loved scaring the crap out of their kids. In re-watching it as an adult, I responded more to Grandma’s emotions: her sadness over the death of her son and daughter-in-law, and her hidden fear that Luke might always remain a mouse (the nuances I hadn’t noticed as a child). Even until the bitter end, we are led to believe that we might not have a happily ever after until the one lucky witch appears and changes Luke back into a boy. A movie that will leave you holding your breath, that will knock you over with its off-kilter camera handling, curse you for life with its costuming and live rent-free inside your mind for eternity, Happy 30th to The Witches!
A Beacon transplant having moved to town a few years ago. With a background in photography, literature, and a fondness of nature she does well in keeping busy in this bustling little community.