October 27, 2011 by abbyo
Well, horror fans, we’ve reached the last week of our Halloween-themed month on No More Popcorn. It’s been fun. I was particularly looking forward to this week, since it’s a Nostalgiaville week, and it means I’d get to revisit a scary movie from my childhood. Thinking over possible candidates, it quickly became clear to me that there was really only one movie to fit the bill: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the 1983 Disney movie that scared the living daylights out me as an impressionable 10-year-old. I’ve seen loads of horror movies between then and now, but none have really scared me the way this movie did.
The movie, adapted from Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name, tells the story of a couple of young boys living in a tiny Illinois burg, whose citizens include a greedy tobacconist, an amputee bartender, an old maid schoolteacher and a pervy barber. One day a carnival, run by a pre-“Brazil” Jonathan Pryce, rolls into town on a spectral train and peddles the dreams of those who visit. The two boys, Will and Jim, suspect something’s up, and sneak back into the carnival after hours. They get a peek at some supernatural goings-on that they’re not supposed to see, and Pryce hunts them down with the help of a demonic carny and a nearly unrecognizable Pam Grier as an uber-creepy witch. The boys seek protection from Will’s dad (Jason Robards) who has a few things he wouldn’t mind changing in his own life.
“Something Wicked” plays out a bit like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in that Pryce’s Mr. Dark grants the wishes of the townspeople with some serious strings attached. The sex-starved barber gets frisky in the exotic dancer tent and gets turned into the carnival’s bearded lady. The schoolteacher gets her youthful good looks restored, but loses her sight. And all of the wish-fulfilled characters become the property of the carnival. There’s also a moral to the story, with the real heart not being the boys’ adventure, but Robards character’s coming to terms with his age and physical condition, and learning to appreciate his life for what it is, not what it isn’t.
Of course, in addition to Pryce’s soul-sucking carnival barker, there are scares aplenty. The movie features a demonic man-child, “Arachnophobia”-style spider infestations, bodily decay and an overabundance of creepy dwarves. Did I mention it’s a family film? The effects in the movie are surprisingly gruesome for a film directed at kids, and while they didn’t really disturb me this time around, I could absolutely understand why the movie frightened me as a child.
But, upon closer inspection, the payoff scenes are really the only thing “Something Wicked” has going for it. In concept, it’s a great idea. In practice, it drags. The balance between the freakier aspects of the movie and the family-friendly elements doesn’t always work. For example, the journey of Robards’ character from out-of-touch, regret-filled father to accepting, loving dad is sweet, but feels like it belongs in an altogether different movie. It’s also not terribly compelling. Dramatically, whatever Will’s father wishes he’d done differently doesn’t come to the surface much, except for a couple of awkward conversations and faraway looks. The movie wants to be about the relationship between Will and his dad, but what it’s really about is a freaky boys’ own adventure with moral undertones.
If the movie had focused more on Will and Jim, I think the film might have better achieved what it set out to do. The absence of Jim’s father, for example, is a subject that’s subtly addressed, but should be more prominent. The lack of a father in Jim’s life is supposed to have made him vulnerable, and anxious for that kind of relationship. We barely see it, until the possibility of having that kind of relationship with Mr. Dark becomes a temptation. It’s a narrative twist that seems to come out of nowhere (and doesn’t make much sense). But, with a bit of nuance, it would have made for an interesting subplot, especially since father-son relationships are a kind of theme of the movie.
So is “Something Wicked This Way Comes” kiddie-horror, straight horror, or family-friendly fare? In fact, it ends up being a little of each, and none of the above all at the same time. There are too many legitimate scares and high-minded morals to make it appropriate for kids, yet not enough of either to make it satisfying for adults, and too much of an imbalance to make it enjoyable for a family. It turns out there’s a reason this movie has become a faded obscurity in the Halloween-viewing canon. It’s a movie that tried to be all things to all people, and ended up being not enough of anything for anyone.
- Despite the fact that this movie isn’t a classic by any means, the visuals and basic concept have crept into all sorts of modern entertainment, something that’s probably better attributed to Bradbury’s novel. The TV series “Carnivale,” for instance, owes a huge debt here, as does Jonathan L. Howard’s novel “Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer,” which cribs just about every aspect of its central plot device from Bradbury’s story.
- Maybe it’s the weirdo townspeople, or just copious use of dwarves, but I’d just love to see David Lynch do a remake of this movie. Wouldn’t you?