Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Wicked, The Wily, THE WITCHES

by Robyn Buckley
They don’t make kid’s movies like they used to.

There is something darker and dirtier about kids movies from the 1980s/1990s - a sort of grime that seems seeped into the picture. They feel dangerous in a way that kids movies today no longer do. There's a reason that the children of the '80s feel so nostalgic for the movies of their youth -- it is because these movies let us feel fear and didn't shield us from their horrors. The Witches is a prime example of this.

The Witches (1990) was directed by Nicolas Roeg and starred Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, Mai Zetterling as Grandma Helga, and Jasen Fisher as Luke Eveshim. The movie takes place in a world where witches exist, and they exist for only one purpose: to kill children, preferably in the cruelest and most creative ways possible. Witches are never caught because they are clever. They look like normal women and they act like your kindly neighbor, but underneath all of that they are pure evil. The Witches is about a boy named Luke who learns of these creatures from his grandmother, Helga. She teaches him all of the ways to tell if someone is a witch. Witches are bald and are always scratching their heads. Witches have no toes, so they must wear sensible flats that won't hurt their feet. Witches have claws, they always wear gloves. To a witch, a clean child smells of fresh dog droppings. If a child sees a woman cover her nose as they pass, she is probably a witch. Luke must learn all of these lessons or he himself could fall prey to witches.
And fall prey he does! The beginning of the movie is almost entirely exposition done via Grandma Helga telling him stories about the wicked deeds done by witches. Luke doesn't entirely believe her, but he is still enough of a child that what she says could possibly be true. It's not until Luke is hunted by one himself (a scene discussed in our Kindertrauma podcast, which even on rewatch as an adult still freaks me out) that he truly grasps how in danger he is at all times. Yet Luke doesn't let this ruin his life; Grandma Helga has given him the tools to keep himself safe and he knows how to avoid a witch… at least until he gets himself stuck in an entire conference of them.

I should probably stop spoiling a 30-year old movie, right? I'm not entirely sure how many people have seen this movie. I grew up with it, but when I've mentioned The Witches to friends, it's always this vague "oh, I think that gave me nightmares" but no actual memory of the plot. I will say if you haven't seen The Witches, watch it. If you have, watch it again. The movie is slow at parts, but in a way that makes sense because when things go crazy (and wow, do they go crazy) it's nice to have that reprieve from the chaos. If you watch for nothing else, watch for the creature design of the Grand High Witch and for the transformation sequences. Those things are the stuff of nightmares.
I like to pick an MVP for movies that I write about, but I have to go with a tie for The Witches between Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch and Mai Zetterling as Grandma Helga. Huston is having the time of her life in this -- she doesn't just chew the scenery, she devours it. Zetterling is on the complete other end of the acting spectrum. She plays everything with complete seriousness and gravitas (witches are no laughing matter!) and easily shows how dangerous it is not to take a witch seriously. My one wish is that they had more scenes acting against one another. Give me a whole movie of them foiling each other!

I hope you use 1990 week at F This Movie to check out The Witches. If you do, let me know what you think!

And now I leave you with…

Robyn’s Ramblings

Love starting a movie with a cackling laugh!

This font looks like it should be on the cover of a Goosebumps book.

The intro wobbly flight over mountains really doesn't prepare you for this movie.

Poor Erica and being stuck in the painting. Do you think she just lived a normal life inside?

The angles used for so many of the shots are off-putting - intentionally.

Grandma Helga is the best.
And...dead parents. Guess you gotta live with Grandma!

All Witches are so creepy. How do they actually get kids to go with them?

Ah, we're at one of my kindertrauma scenes. "She can't hear you" will forever give me chills.

Oh no grandma is sick! With a very mild case of diabetes that only needs a seaside vacation? Is that a thing? That doesn't seem to me how diabetes works.

Has Anjelica Huston always been the exact same age no matter the year?

Bruno's quiet "we've got three cars" in the middle of his introduction is amazing.

Rowan Atkinson! Hello Blackadder!

He's not wrong that mice shouldn't be brought to a hotel.

Not sure why Luke had to take his mice exploring the hotel.

You'd think the witches could get some better wigs or wear wig caps.

The Grand High Witch is one of my favorite creature designs.
Are witches born as adults? How do witches as a species work?

Luke almost giving up his hiding spot to grab some money is peak idiot child.

The witches all turn on each other so quickly/love seeing each other suffer.

Huston's "WITCHES WORK ONLY WITH MAGIC." is my favorite line reading in the movie.

Bruno's about to be transformed!

Bruno, how do you not realize things are not normal in this room?

Oh god the transformation scene is disturbing.

Luke you're about to get caught.

"Well that's too bad for the grown-up." Huston is ice cold.

Huston just shoving baby strollers off cliffs.

Luke, do you not know how to lock doors? Does this hotel not have locking doors?

Bruno is unfazed.

Luke just pronounced diabetes like he's Wilford Brimley.

I don't think the witches accounted for the kids being able to still talk.

Luke's "they turned me into a mouse" is so cavalier. He doesn’t give a shit.
Bruno's dad is worse than the actual witches.

Why are there so many pets in this hotel?

Luke, how do you expect to carry the formula bottle? You're freaking tiny.

Grandma Helga does seem like she's insane when telling Bruno's parents.

This kitchen scene is nerve-wracking.

Does nobody notice the witches glowing purple eyes? Can only children see this?

I'd like Bruno's dad to turned.

The mass transformation scene is a thing of pure horror.

Bruno's mom has gone mad with the revelation.


  1. i was one of those kids who just...couldn't finish this movie, it was way too scary. i almost died.

  2. I have never seen this! Wondering if my kids could tolerate this... hmmm...

  3. Nicholas Roeg making a children's movie... One should not expect it to not push boundaries. It looks interesting.