‘The Witches’ is the Essential Gateway Horror Film
So often, children’s films and literature are hesitant to put youthful protagonists in real peril. But that was never a problem for prolific author Roald Dahl. Dahl recognized that many children enjoy a good scare. Even the author’s lighter fare (like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) has moments of darkness. But The Witches is more than just occasionally dark—it’s steeped in an eerie atmosphere. Dahl’s book was so unsettling, in fact, that the 1990 feature film adaptation (which observes a release date anniversary on August 24th) had to tweak certain narrative elements to make it more palatable for impressionable moviegoers. But even with a bit of retooling, Nicholas Roeg’s screen adaptation of the Dahl tome is plenty dark. So dark that I am going to go out on a limb and call it the scariest gateway horror film of the past 35 years.
Mere moments into The Witches, our youthful protagonist, Luke (Jasen Fisher), learns that his parents have been killed in an automobile accident. Shortly thereafter, his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) takes ill and is diagnosed with diabetes on Luke’s birthday. This poor kid can’t seem to catch a break. But the worst is yet to come. Luke’s grandma takes her young charge on a seaside vacation to take their minds off the tragedy they have endured.
But the very hotel where they elect to stay during their oceanside escape just so happens to be staged as home base for a gathering of witches. Under the guidance of the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), the evil beings plan to turn all of the children in England into mice and squash them like bugs. Luke quickly finds himself in their crosshairs and must keep his wits about him if he hopes to survive the ordeal.
Also Read: ‘The Gate’ is Essential Gateway Horror
I remember seeing The Witches for the first time in fourth grade. One of the teachers at my elementary school saw fit to show it on a movie day. To be clear, I’m quite grateful for that. But I think a few of my classmates may have come away traumatized. While the film does sport a family-friendly PG rating, it still succeeds in being supremely terrifying.
A big piece of what makes The Witches so scary is the idea that it presents its witchy antagonists as everyday people. They have ordinary jobs and live in normal-looking homes. They aren’t eccentric spinsters living in ramshackle cottages in the woods and stirring oversized cauldrons. No, they are hiding in plain sight, almost entirely indiscernible from the rest of us. While the more typical presentation of witches in film and literature certainly has its place, this gateway horror film makes its antagonists feel far more dangerous. The witches depicted in this 1990 effort aren’t peaceful Wiccans, looking to commune with nature. These are nasty creatures merely passing as human beings.
Though the film’s titular characters are able to pass for humans when they are out in public, they prove to be a harrowing sight behind closed doors. The sequence where the Grand High Witch peels her ‘face’ off terrified me as a child. As if that weren’t frightening enough, all of her subordinates follow suit and take their faces off, leaving their disfigured features and rotting teeth on full display. From there, the audience is left to watch as the sinister sorceresses proceed to remove their wigs, exposing their pustule-filled scalps. And that is pure nightmare fuel.
I’m pleased to say that the horrors don’t stop with the unmasking scene. Oh no, dear reader. The Grand High Witch is just getting started. Shortly after the unmasking, she goes on to turn a dissenting practitioner of black magic into a charred pile of ash. From there, she attempts to turn young Luke and his new friend Bruno into mice with designs on squishing the both of them.
The magical women at the core of this story are absolutely a frightful sight. And they’re downright vicious. They become giddy at the idea of killing all the children in England. They are sociopathic supernatural beings, biding their time, hoping against hope they will be blessed with the chance to murder some unsuspecting youngsters.
Though the choice to put children in mortal danger certainly serves to terrify impressionable viewers, it also makes for a cinematic experience they won’t soon forget. When youngsters are treated as sacred onscreen, that has the potential to cheapen the viewing experience. Seeing the film as a child, I felt empowered when bearing witness to my onscreen counterparts in such serious peril. I loved that feeling and wanted more of it. Films like The Witches inspired me to continue to seek out the macabre in safe and structured ways thereafter.
I consider The Witches an essential gateway horror picture. And for my money, it stands as the most terrifying entry point to the genre we’ve seen in multiple decades.
If you’re keen to revisit The Witches in observance of its release date anniversary, you can find it available as a digital rental or download. And you can also find the flick available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.