The LBL 5 Year B-Day Special: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1984)
Horror fans often wonder why we don’t see films that scare us like they did when we were kids, and here’s the rub, we do. They just don’t have the same fright factor anymore. When I was a youngster, I got into horror through one of the more innocent portals into the genre, the Universal monster movies. These were my first impressions of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and The Phantom of the Opera, and even after watching them on a grainy TV viewing, a low quality VHS, or on a condensed version made for Super 8 film, these movies still gave me the chills. I loved to get the big oversized film books and pour over pictures of creatures like The Golem or Dr. Phibes, scaring myself with their images long before I saw the movie. I've waxed poetic about my youth as a horror fan many times on The Lair, and I won’t take any more time here except to say that these films used to really, really scare me. While Dracula remains my favorite vampire movie and Bela Lugosi’s shining moment, the thought that a bat that turned into Bela might show up in my boudoir now seems ludicrous. Yet there was a time that even though I knew they were movies, I believed.
Over years of watching horror movies and seeing every vile form of death dismemberment and torture under the sun (Except for Human Centipede. Seriously, did anyone need that film?), the effect begins to wear thin and, as viewers, we are always chasing the high of those early scares that really stuck with us. Today, I’m here to talk about one that has never left my mind. It’s a film that left an indelible mark on me, and the memory of the fear that the film brought out on the nine year old Bugg, well, it caused this viewing, some 26 years down the line, to be the first time I had seen the entire film. The film is Disney’s Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes. Now if any of you have seen this film, you probably know it is not terribly frightening, but somewhere between the themes of death and a certain scene that I will detail in a bit, the wee me didn't make it to the end of the film.
It all begins when a strange carnival rolls into town and Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and his best friend, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), begin to suspect that there’s something strange going on. They probably get these suspicions because Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his band of carnies are a real bunch of weirdos. The boys soon discover that Dark is using “broken down” carnival rides to grant wishes of the town’s folk who desire to return to their youthful glory, but the prices that the devilish ringmaster charges are far too high. When Dark surmises that the boys know too much, he sends out his goons to bring them in and tap into their darkest fears. (This is when 9 year old me was done.) While they avoid falling into Dark’s clutches, it falls to Will’s dad (Jason Robards), an aging librarian, to save the day.
Something Wicked this Way Comes was Disney’s plan to tap into the dark children’s movies that populated the 80s. From Gremlins to The Dark Crystal, the formula had worked, but Disney had never done spooky well. Even their Escape to Witch Mountain series always felt like a bait and switch to me. It said witches, but it was about aliens. Disney was better at horror when they didn't mean to be, such as the deaths in Bambi or Maleficent turning into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty. The majority of the film isn't really scary at all, even for a youngster. It doesn't seem like the boys are in any more danger than Encyclopedia Brown got into. However, around the fifty minute mark when Mr. Dark begins to exploit their fears, things went wonky for both the 37 year old and the 9 year old me. At the fifty minute mark, the boys see their own heads cut off by a guillotine. As a kid, this was more than likely the goriest thing I had seen up to that point in my life, and combined with the plot fraught with mortality, seeing the two boys in the film, kids who were around my age at the time, watch their own heads get cut off, it was way too much for me. My parents recall that all they saw was my little blonde headed self get up off the floor and run screaming back to my bedroom. Naturally, they laughed. (See also my Hellraiser review). I don't recall what went though my little mind at the time, but I've had years of thinking about it, and I believe I've come up with a few things.
First, in my young mind, this was very real to me because it was happening to kids. In the old Universal horrors, the monsters went after adults (except the young girl in Frankenstein, but I knew I was not dumb enough to play with monsters.) Seeing that kind of violence against someone who could have been me, an all too curious child, was enough to make me confront my own mortality. Up until that point, I don't know if I had ever thought about dying really. Like any child, I felt invincible, but Something Wicked this Way Comes scared me because I considered my own death. Which, interestingly, the film deals with the cycle of life, aging, and death, so perhaps in a way I got the point at an early age. Now, all this is armchair psychology. Chances are it just scared the bejeebers out of me and I took off running.
Now for the problem that this segment caused the grown up me. A close watch of the scary moment of the film show signs of inconsistency, and it is likely that the scenes were shot and re-shot looking for a tone that wasn't there. In fact in a few key scenes, Peterson and Carson look to have aged a bit, but perhaps they got too close to Mr. Dark’s carnival rides. The entire film has a problem with consistency, and having never read Ray Bradbury’s novel, I can’t say where it deviates from the source material. Bradbury did say this adaptation was among his favorite of those done of his work, so take from that what you will. I found the plot disjointed, as well as the tone. Jason Robards, who is outstanding in his role of the “old dad” who doesn't know if he can do the job, is kind of a surprise hero. After all, I thought this was about the two boys. They seem to be our protagonist for the first two thirds of the film, but then Robards steps in to finish up the job.
Director Jack Clayton should have been a man well suited to the job. In 1961, he adapted Henry James’ A Turn of the Screw for the screen as The Innocents with Deborah Kerr. It was one of the best translations of the work for film, and it still stands in my mind as one of Hollywood’s greatest ghost stories. Clayton’s last high profile gig before Something Wicked was 1974’s The Great Gatsby (Clayton mostly worked as a producer.), another hailed adaptation, though I find it as boring as watching Robert Redford comb his teeth. It’s no wonder Disney brought Clayton in on the job, but I would have liked to see what film he might have produced without the interference of House of Mouse brass. The cast he assembled were well suited to their roles, especially Robards, and I believe this has the distinction of being the only Disney film with Pam Grier in it. The alluring Grier plays the Dust Witch from beneath a layer of sparkly black fabric that sadly hid all of her alluring shape from impressionable young minds.
I started off saying that there was a time I believed in the films. I don’t know that I ever thought that the events transpiring on screen were real, but I always thought that whatever happened there could also happen to me if I didn't watch out. Before Something Wicked this Way Comes, I recall loving fairs and carnivals. After, I kept a more watchful eye, and if I was to see a guillotine, my mind often wandered back to that scene. For this reason, magic shows both fascinated me and made me fearful. As I got older, the things in movies I thought might happen to me were all in films such as Pretty in Pink or Hardbodies. Horror began to lose its effect, as it does on all horror fans, but I keep searching out that same rush that sent me screaming down the hallway.
With this viewing, Something Wicked this Way Comes seems to have lost its sway over the fear inside me. I will have to admit that the scene still felt quite jolting even now. Horror fans are like junkies with a tolerance. We want to score that next big high. We want to find something that is better that will make us scared. We want to find it because it takes us back to the childhood fears, where we could be scared of a monster or a boogieman and not a bill collector or a boss. Horror cinema allows us to escape, but it also allows us to relive. Watching Something Wicked this Way Comes didn't scare me, but it returned me to the memory of when I was scared. To a time when my mom came back to my room, gently knocked on the door, and told me it was going to be all right, I didn't have to watch anymore. I wish something would scare me so much I had to call my Mommy. (Martyrs came close.)
So until I find something, I will be here at the LBL for five or fifty more years, whatever it takes. I want to thank everyone who has supported me over the last five years, especially this year when it took a lot for me to keep it alive. Thanks everyone who comments, reads, submits articles for events, or shares my links. When I started, I never thought there would be so many people out there to support me, and I can't thank you all enough.I'll be back again tomorrow with Hitch on the Hump, and check back for more great stuff coming this month.
I found the full movie on Youtube, So if you haven't seen it, check out what scared the Bugg when he was a Bugglet.