A boy and his grandma (Jasen Fisher and Mai Zetterling) go on holiday together only to find themselves sharing a hotel with the conference from hell – a gathering of evil witches.
This adaptation of the macabre Roald Dahl story terrorised a generation of children, although director Nicolas Roeg actually removed some scenes from the original cut after it traumatised his son. I remember being terrified the first time I watched it, but was probably too young at the time, what with being under 25.
It remains enduringly horrific, with the genuinely repulsive Grand High Witch continuing to spread fear thanks to an outstanding performance by Anjelica Huston. In the scenes where she appears as an ordinary woman she manages to be highly disconcerting. But it’s the hideous ghoul beneath that still haunts the nightmares of 90s children the way the Child Catcher petrified children of the 60s and 70s.
It reportedly took 6 hours to both apply and remove the elaborate make-up, and the film features a number of other ingenious effects, like the puppetry used to make a mouse talk. The last film Jim Henson worked on before he died, it shows the muppeteer’s dark streak as previously demonstrated in Labyrinth.
While family films have arguably become darker, featuring more death and violence, you don’t often see a film so fine tuned to play against the fears of children. While The Witches is done in a more fantastical way than many dark newer films, this isn’t necessarily clear to petrified children.
The one element of the film that hasn’t aged well is the gender politics, which is almost medieval in requiring all women to be viewed with suspicion. While it’s true that there are many monsters typically thought of as being men (vampires, werewolves, clowns), these all look like monsters. None of them require us to eye all men with suspicion.
But the ubiquity of the witches is part of what makes them so scary, and one of the reasons the film is so effective at scaring children is because the grotesque villains take the guise of the group children are encouraged to trust most: kind women. And the feminist stakes are somewhat balanced by the cigar-smoking granny. You go girl.
The Witches is a film which has truly stood the test of time, even if I would only show it to the children of people I don’t like.