The Witches (1990 film)
|Directed by||Nicolas Roeg|
|Screenplay by||Allan Scott|
|Based on||The Witches|
by Roald Dahl
|Music by||Stanley Myers|
|Edited by||Tony Lawson|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$15.3 million|
The Witches is a 1990 American dark fantasy film directed by Nicolas Roeg, produced by Jim Henson and starring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, and Jasen Fisher. It is based on the 1983 book of the same name by Roald Dahl. As in the original novel, the story features evil witches who masquerade as ordinary women and kill children, and a boy and his grandmother must find a way to foil their plans.
The film was produced by Jim Henson Productions for Lorimar Film Entertainment as the last theatrical film to be produced by Lorimar before the company shut down in 1993. The film was very well received by critics, but performed poorly at the box office; however, it has retained a cult following over the years.
During a vacation with his grandmother Helga in Norway, a nine-year-old American boy, Luke Eveshim, is warned about witches, female demons who immensely hate children and use various methods to destroy or transform them. Helga tells Luke that unlike ordinary women, real witches have claws instead of fingernails which they hide by wearing gloves, bald heads which they cover by wearing wigs that give them rashes, square feet with no toes which they hide by wearing sensible shoes, a purple tinge in their pupils and a powerful sense of smell which they use to sniff out children. To a witch, clean children stink of dog's droppings; the dirtier the child, the less likely she is to smell them. Helga says her childhood friend, Erica, fell victim to a witch and was cursed to spend the rest of her life trapped inside a painting, aging gradually until finally disappearing a few years earlier.
Luke's parents are killed in a car crash while visiting his grandmother, and Helga becomes Luke's legal guardian. They move to England. Soon after arriving there, Luke is playing in his treehouse one day when he is approached by a woman - he quickly registers that she is a witch. She tries to lure him down with a snake and finally chocolate bar. He stays in his treehouse for protection and the witch goes away when his grandmother arrives. On Luke's birthday, Helga falls ill and is diagnosed with diabetes. Her doctor advises her to take a holiday the sea. At their seaside hotel, Luke meets and befriends a greedy but friendly boy, Bruno Jenkins. Luke unintentionally antagonizes the hotel manager, Mr Stringer, after his pet mice frighten one of the maids, who is Mr Stringer's girlfriend. Also at the hotel is a convention of witches, masquerading as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Grand High Witch, the all-powerful leader of the world's witches, is attending under the name Eva Ernst.
Luke hides inside the ballroom and spies on the witches' meeting, although by the time he realizes the truth about who the women really are, it is too late to escape the ballroom. After berating the witches for not eliminating enough of England's children, Eva exterminates a witch who questions her demand that all of England's children should be eliminated. She then unveils her latest creation: a magic potion to turn all the world's children into mice, which will be used in confectionery products in sweet shops and candy stores to be purchased using money provided by Eva. Bruno, who was given the potion earlier, is brought into the room, turns into a mouse and flees.
Luke is discovered soon afterwards and managed to escape the ballroom, returning to Helga in their room, but finds her asleep after having a diabetes-induced dizzy spell. The Grand High Witch then appears, seizing Luke in the room and taking him back to the ballroom, where he is forced to drink the potion and turned into a mouse before escaping. He finds Bruno and reunites with Helga, who has since recovered. Luke devises a plan to defeat the witches by sneaking into Eva's room to steal a bottle of the potion, then sneaking into the kitchen and put it into the soup for the special RSPCC party. Luke and Helga try to get Bruno to his parents, but they do not believe her story and are frightened by the mouse.
Mr. Jenkins orders the soup, though Helga stops him from consuming it. Bruno's parents finally realize Bruno really is a mouse when he speaks up. As the witches enter the dining room, Miss Susan Irvine, Eva's long-suffering and mistreated assistant, quits upon being banned from the celebration. The formula turns all the witches into mice, and the staff and hotel guests join in killing them, unknowingly ridding England of its witches. Amidst the chaos, Helga spots the transformed Eva and traps her under a water jug before helpfully pointing her out to Mr. Stringer, who chops her in two with a meat cleaver. She then returns Bruno to his bewildered parents. Luke and Helga return home to where Eva's trunk full of money and an address book of all witches in the United States is delivered, allowing them to plan an operation to wipe out all the witches in America. That night, Miss Irvine, now a good witch, drives to Luke and Helga's house and returns Luke to human form, and returns his pet mice and glasses. She leaves to pay Bruno a visit, as Luke and Helga wave goodbye.
- Anjelica Huston as Eva Ernst / Grand High Witch, the all-powerful leader of the world's witches. Huston also voices her rat form.
- Mai Zetterling as Helga Eveshim, an old woman who is an old enemy of the Grand High Witch
- Jasen Fisher as Luke Eveshim, Helga's grandson. Fisher also voices his mouse form.
- Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Stringer, the hotel owner/manager
- Charlie Potter as Bruno Jenkins, a gluttonous boy who befriends Luke. Potter also voices his mouse form.
- Bill Paterson as Mr. Jenkins, Bruno's father
- Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Jenkins, Bruno's mother
- Anne Lambton as Pamela / Woman in Black, an unnamed witch dressed in black who tries to entice Luke with chocolate and a snake
- Jane Horrocks as Miss Irvine, the mistreated assistant of the Grand High Witch
- Sukie Smith as Marlene
- Rose English as Dora
- Jenny Runacre as Elsie, a witch who works as a maid in the hotel
- Annabel Brooks as Nicola Cuttle, a Witch from England
- Emma Relph as Mildred, a witch.
- Nora Connolly as Beatrice, a witch who is killed by the Grand High Witch for arguing with her
- Rosamund Greenwood as Janice, a witch.
- Anjelique Rockas as Henrietta, a witch who asks about the Grand High Witch's plan
- Stella Tanner as Lois Leffour, a witch from Southampton, England
- Barbara Hicks as Regina, a witch
- Ann Tirard as Lady 1/Witch at meeting
- Leila Hofman as Lady 2/Witch at meeting
- Jim Carter as Head Chef, the unnamed head of the hotel's kitchen staff
- Roberta Taylor as Witch Chef, a witch who works as a chef in the hotel's kitchens
- Debra Gillett as Waitress
- Darcy Flynn as Luke's Mother, the late mother of Luke
- Vincent Marzello as Luke's Father, the late father of Luke
- Serena Harragin as Doctor
- Grete Nordrå as Norwegian Witch
- Kristen Steinsland as Child Helga
- Elsie Eide as Erica
- Merete Armand as Erica's Mother
- Ola Otnes as Erica's Father
- Johan Sverre as Policeman
- Arvid Ones as Policeman
- Sverre Rossummoen as Policeman
- Michael Palin as Witch at Meeting
- Wendy Lowder as Witch at Meeting
The Witches was adapted from the children's book of the same title by British author Roald Dahl. It was the final film that Jim Henson personally worked on before his death, the final theatrical film produced by Lorimar Productions, and the last film made based on Dahl's material before his death (both Henson and Dahl died that year).
The following people did special puppeteer work in this film: Anthony Asbury, Don Austen (Bruno's mouse form), Sue Dacre, David Greenaway, Brian Henson, Robert Tygner, and Steve Whitmire (Luke's mouse form). The early portion of the film was shot in Bergen in Norway. Much of the rest was shot on location in the Headland Hotel situated on the coast in Newquay, Cornwall.
During the shoot, Rowan Atkinson caused a Mr. Bean style calamity when he left the bath taps running in his room (the frantically knocking porter was told “go away, I’m asleep”). The flood wrote off much of the production team's electrical equipment on the floor below. At the time, Huston was dating Jack Nicholson, who frequently phoned the hotel and sent huge flower bouquets, much to the excitement of the staff.
The elaborate makeup effects for Huston's Grand High Witch took six hours to apply, and another six to remove. The prosthetics included a full face mask, hump, mechanized claws, and a withered collarbone. Huston described a monologue scene she had to do where "I was so uncomfortable and tired of being encased in rubber under hot lights for hours that the lines had ceased to make sense to me and all I wanted to do was cry."
The green vapour used extensively at the end of the film was oil based, and would obscure the contacts in Huston's eyes, which had to be regularly flushed out with water by an expert. Roeg chose a sexy costume for the character to wear and emphasized to Huston that the Grand High Witch should have sex appeal at all times, despite her grotesque appearance in certain scenes of the film.
Dahl was incensed that Roeg had changed his original ending in the script. As a gesture of conciliation, Roeg offered to film two versions before he made his final choice: the book version where Luke remains a mouse, and the happier version where he is transformed back into a human. (Upon watching the scene loyal to his book, Dahl was so moved that he was brought to tears.) However, Roeg decided to go with the changed ending, which led Dahl to demand that his name be removed entirely from the credits and to threaten a publicity campaign against the film. He was only dissuaded from this on the urging of Jim Henson.
The film was slated to be distributed by Lorimar, but when the company dissolved their theatrical distribution operation, it wound up sitting on the shelf for more than a year after filming was completed. The film premiered on 25 May 1990, in London and was scheduled to open the same day in the United States, but following Florida test screenings earlier that year Warner Bros. delayed the American release until August. The film took in $10,360,553 in the United States, and 266,782 in Germany.
Warner Home Video first released the film on VHS and LaserDisc in 1991. The second release (and first re release) was on VHS and for the first time on DVD in 1999. Both versions (and any television screenings) use the original open matte negative of the film, instead of matting it down to 1.85:1 (or 1.66:1). It was released on the Blu-ray format in Spain only in 2017. In July 2019, a Blu-ray release from Warner Archive Collection was announced, and was released on 20 August 2019. In August 2020, a Special Edition 30th Anniversary region free Blu-ray release from Warner Bros in the United Kingdom was announced, in special packaging including is a booklet, Original Theatrical release poster, and four art cards, all housed alongside the disc in a collector’s box and was released on 12 October 2020.
The film contains an orchestral score composed by Stanley Myers. To date, a soundtrack CD has not been released, and the entire score remains obscure. Throughout the score, the Dies irae appears, highly reminiscent of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique Mvt. V, "The Witches Sabbath".
The Witches received critical acclaim. The film holds a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews from 43 critics, with an average rating of 7.55/10. The consensus reads: "With a deliciously wicked performance from Anjelica Huston and imaginative puppetry by Jim Henson's creature shop, Nicolas Roeg's dark and witty movie captures the spirit of Roald Dahl's writing like few other adaptations."
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, calling it "an intriguing movie, ambitious and inventive, and almost worth seeing just for Anjelica Huston's obvious delight in playing a completely uncompromised villainess." However, Roald Dahl regarded the film as "utterly appalling" because of the ending that contrasted with his book. He did, however, praise Huston’s performance as the Grand High Witch.
The film earned £2,111,841 at the UK box office.
- Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (1991)
- Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
- Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Make-up (John Stephenson)
- Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Music (Stanley Myers)
- Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor (Jasen Fisher)
- Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress (Mai Zetterling)
- BAFTA Awards (1991)
- Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Makeup and Hair (Christine Beveridge)
- Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1991)
- Won – Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
- Fantasporto (1991)
- Nominated – International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film (Nicolas Roeg)
- Hugo Awards (1991)
- Nominated – Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1990)
- Won – Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
- National Society of Film Critics Awards (1990)
- Won – National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
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