The Witches (1990)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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While nine year old Luke (Jasen Fisher) is visiting his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) in Norway, she tells him stories about witches, about how they really exist and how they hate and murder children. Sadly, Luke's parents are killed in a car accident during this visit, and he is left in the care of his grandmother, who brings him to live in England. When, some time after their arrival at their new home, the boy's grandmother collapses and is diagnosed with diabetes, the pair decide to visit a seaside hotel so that she will be able to recover. Unfortunately, they are not able to relax there after Luke discovers that many of their fellow guests, who are at the hotel for a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, are actually witches. What is more, he learns that Eva Ernst (Anjelica Huston), who is both the head of that society and the Grand High Witch, the ruler of all the witches, is planning to transform the children of England into mice.

Nicolas Roeg's The Witches, which is based on Roald Dahl's book of the same title, is an often clever and always entertaining film.

The story Roeg tells is filled with exciting escapes, dangerous situations, and a number of monstrous villains. It is, consequently, genuinely fun to watch. The viewer is sure to be thrilled by the sight of hosts of witches threatening Luke, of that boy hiding behind a screen and listening to their plots, of another young boy, Bruno, who has befriended Luke, being lured by the hags with the promise of candy and then being changed into a mouse, and of other odd or exhilarating sequences besides these. Admittedly, there are times when the story told is a little arbitrary, and the conclusion is so neat that it does seem contrived, but such flaws are never so severe that they spoil the film's enjoyableness.

What is more, many of the strange occurrences the director depicts have been brought to the screen with tremendous skill. Several of the puppets fashioned by Jim Henson are especially well realized. When, for instance, the Grand High Witch peels off the face and skin she wears while pretending to be Eva, she reveals a bald, purplish cranium, an enormous nose, a jutting, bewhiskered chin, a veined, sinewy chest, long, spidery fingers, and a bony hump growing from her back. She is absolutely repulsive and is sure to delight any person who loves the sight of the frightening or the otherworldly. She is not, however, Henson's only interesting creation in the movie. At various points, he presents the viewer with the transformations of different persons into mice, with a horrible mouse-like monstrosity, and with agile, acrobatic talking mice. While the puppets used to give life to the last of these are somewhat too adorable, they are so skilfully realized that their cuteness does not unduly detract from The Witches' appeal.

Sadly, the quality of the acting is not consistent and so does not invariably complement the movie's other virtues. Anjelica Huston is a joy as the imperious, venomous Grand High Witch. Bill Paterson is fun to watch as a boorish guest, and Rowan Atkinson acquits himself well as the hotel's frantic manager. The child actors, and a number of the supporting players, however, either overact or infuse their characters with so much saccharine they are nearly unwatchable.

While it is flawed, The Witches is, nonetheless, a consistently entertaining film that is sure to delight any person able to relish a well told story.

Review by Keith Allen

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