If only Disney didn’t take itself so fucking seriously. Fans of cult film are probably aware, in some capacity, that in the late 70’s right up until the mid-80’s, Disney kicked out a series of movies both live-action and animated that they would probably prefer the world forget about. I’m talking about flicks like Condorman, The Watcher In The Woods and The Black Cauldron. These all pop up on cable from time to time and are on DVD in some form or other but this dead zone in the Disney catalog is a very strange time. For the most part, these weirdo experiments in genre fare, as Disney tried to reach out to an older audience, vary wildly in quality but the one that I feel got the raw deal in spite of its positive qualities, was easily the Jack Clayton directed adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Since the inception of what I consider to be the second wave of Disney classics, the stuff beginning in the late 80’s I’ve come into a strong aversion to the Disney brand. I feel as though their trasformation from a bold, adventurous producer of the world’s finest animation into a marketing juggernaut is tacky and dangerous, but it’s this period in the early 80’s that I’m actually most fascinated by. By this point, they had plundered all the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson that they could get their hands on and were trying new things. Because of their strong affiliation with the animated medium and The Mouse, movie goers were less inclined to accept something that was live action that didn’t feature Jodie Foster or Kurt Russell, let alone something as creepy and threatening as Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Adapted from the Bradbury novel by Bradbury (and a couple of hired guns to sand the sharp edges down), Something Wicked This Way Comes concerns the adventure of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, two boys in a small pre-depression town that discover the dark secret of the Autumn Fair, run by the wicked Mr. Dark. The town is portrayed as a collective of deeply flawed people, each yearning for something missing in their lives and while Mr. Dark’s carnival promises to fulfill their dreams, they come at a horrible price.
Something Wicked screens like a dog on a leash. It wants so badly to just take off and go where it wants to go but the leash continually holds it back from going too far out of the yard. The dog being Ray Bradbury and the leash being Disney. While they’re trying to go where no family oriented production company had gone before, they’re constantly mindful that they can’t freak you out too much or the inevitable pre-adolescent audience is going to be up for days, frightened that Pam Grier is going to set her legions of tarantulas on them. It’s a constantly shifting balance. Fear dances with safety, constantly taking turns at being the dominant force. It’s easy to see where Bradbury’s script begins and ends. Because of the polar nature of the script, it’s a largely inconsistent affair. To a child, though, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a positively menacing movie.
It’s not without its saving graces, though. Something Wicked has a tendency to feel like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s exceptionally well written when it allows itself to be, has very family friendly creeps, which can be genuinely unsettling at times and looks as though it was shot on leftover sets from The Music Man. The only thing missing is a quick pan to Rod Serling, suit, cigarette and all, “Consider, if you will, an ordinary carnival…”
The star of the show, though, is Johnathan Pryce in his debut role as Mr. Dark. He’s the devil you know and an utterly likable villain in coattails and a stovepipe hat. What’s not to like about a guy who dresses as sharp as he does? Though its only ever hinted at, his body is covered in kaleidoscopic tattoos that crawl across his skin. Accompanying him on his quest for souls is the lovely Dust Witch, played by Pam Grier who, I think, doesn’t speak a word in the entire movie. Her direction was simple, look sultry, thousand yard stare, wave your hand, we’ll add the graphics later. Jason Robards is the other bright spot in the movie, a deeply regretful old man, father to WIll Halloway, spends the most screentime, short of the boys, grappling with Mr. Dark.
The undercurrent of the plot addresses the end of childhood, the shattering of illusions that come with that and the way that we have a tendency to grow apart from old relationships and into new ones and it’s a fascinating device but executed in an inefficient manner. The story tries to be in too many places at once, packing in the spooks (including an extended tarantula attack scene) and opportunities for that animated magic effect (which I STILL love, by the way). A running subplot addresses Jim Nightshade’s inability to cope with his father walking out on him and the temptation of joining Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival with Mr. Dark as his stand-in father figure. This winds up abandoned toward the end of the movie with Disney instead choosing to resolve the conflict with Mr. Dark in a fairly gruesome manner (plus a stupid deus ex moment in the nick of time) and settles the awkward relationship between the suspiciously elderly Charles Halloway and son Will and the barriers that keep them from fully embracing their father-son relationship.
Though deeply flawed as most of the movies are that appeal to me, Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of those rare times when memories of childhood wind up as vivid as I remember. A spooky, well-written horror movie that I would be comfortable showing to children. Its weak points come in the wake of a troubled production but it’s a fascinating snapshot from a transformative time in Disney’s history, the only movie in their catalog that you could really, and I mean REALLY call a horror movie.