The scariest childhood film ever is coming back, but here’s what we loved about the original...
1990 – it was a simpler time, wasn’t it? Collecting Pogs, knocking back Sunny D and arguing over the rules of Minesweeper (did anyone really know the rules? We were all bluffing, right?). And of course, scaring ourselves silly watching The Witches. Arguably Academy Award-winning Anjelica Huston’s best performance (don’t @ me) there were few things more terrifying to a child of the nineties than the squeaking of that rubber mask being peeled off to reveal the Grand High Witch in all her terrifying gnarliness. With news the 2020 remake starring Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and Octavia Spencer as ‘grandmother’ is being held back until 2021, we’re taking a trip down memory lane about the original, instead. Here’s what you need to know/remember about it…
Enough said? OK, technically it’s Rowan Atkinson playing hotel manager Mr Stringer but there’s no difference to a nineties kid (fun fact: Mr Bean came out the same year as The Witches). Nor is there any greater joy than watching his life become unravelled by mice. Pure, unadulterated LOLs.
It’s absolutely terrifying.
A kid’s film? Really? In one scene we see Anjelica Huston’s character sidle up to a sleeping mother and push her baby’s pram – baby still inside – down a cliff. As the mother screams in panic, the witches are wide-eyed with delight, watching the baby’s (almost) demise. Absolutely harrowing stuff.
But Anjelica Huston still manages to be…sexy?
Peeling skin, fluffy tufts of hair and chin stubble, a skull shape straight out of an Attenborough documentary…And yet, still strangely alluring at all times? We want whatever she’s having (oh wait, it’s children, scrap that).
The terrible special effects.
Remember those ‘indoor fireworks’ displays your parents got that turned out to be small pellets that sort of shuffled around a plate once you lit them? Yeah, it was much like that, really. But hey, this was the nineties! Forget CGI, it was all puppetry, makeup and prosthetics making this film what it was, and it still scared us witless.
The makeup was actually BAFTA-nominated.
Christine Beveridge was up for Best Makeup and Hair in 19991. There was so much of it in fact, that Anjelica’s took over seven hours to apply and a whopping five hours to remove. Shame micellar water wasn’t invented yet, eh?
Women playing leads.
As one 1990 review put it: “The movie is a delight from beginning to end, not least because women occupy centre stage, and – oh joys – some of them are shown to bate children. This is quite refreshing at a time when women land about one third of all movie roles and when they do utter more than two lines of dialogue they are generously allowed to play a loving mother, a dedicated wife or a prostitute (two possibilities: she either gets killed or is “saved” by a rich guy).” Quite progressive for the nineties, wasn’t it?
Children are the real heroes.
Well maybe not Bruno Jenkins, but part of Roald Dahl’s magic was his belief and trust in children. Here, we see almost every adult (bar Luke’s grandmother Helga) portrayed as evil or untrustworthy – a real departure for kids films of that time, which usually taught us to respect our elders and do exactly as they said.
You’ll see Cornwall very differently after watching.
Idyllic holiday destination or scene of abject horror? You won’t be able to admire Newquay’s majestic headland in the same way after watching The Witches (but it’s worth it – just go to Devon instead?).
From a feminist perspective, it’s interesting.
The very notion of witches is problematic since women have long been deemed ‘witches’ as a way of reinforcing gender inequality in a patriarchal society (hence the sudden resurgence of ‘witchcraft’ in recent years as a movement for female empowerment). Worth another watch with a 2020 lens to see how you feel about the label now perhaps?
There’s a happy ending.
Unlike the book, where (spoiler alert) Luke stays as a mouse forever, with around nine years left to live (bleak) in the film version he gets to return to his original human state. Dahl complained about it, but it’s probably the only thing that stopped us crying into our pillows every night after watching it so we’re pretty pleased about that outcome really.