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A young boy, recently orphaned, is taken to England by his grandmother. At a hotel in which they are staying, a group of witches have gathered to prepare a plot to rid England of all children. Written by
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When your father was a boy like you, and living with me here in Norway, I told him about witches too, so that he would always be aware. Now, the most important thing you should know about real witches is this - now listen very carefully! Real witches dress in ordinary clothes, and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses, and they work in ordinary jobs.
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On a par with the rest of Dahl's movies (Willy Wonka , Matilda , James and the Giant Peach)
Yet another book by the famous storyteller Roald Dahl has been transferred to the silver screen. To be honest I have not read the book but I can assure you that the film consists of all the sinister irony, the creepiness and an amusing touch of morbidity which dominates all the fairy tales this fellow has printed on paper. The Witches is a rather forgotten little gem with a biting script, an engaging direction and entertaining performances from the entire cast. Roald Dahl (and consequently the writer and the director) made his own version of witchcraft. He used scary images and frightening themes not to insult the occult fans but simply to poke fun at some cliched lore and legends. As a result the film suffered from a severe identity crisis and failed to reach a target audience: a bit too dark for kids and the adults easily misjudged it as a run-of-the-mill childish corny movie. No wonder the film is to date an unknown fantasy flick. However for the lucky viewers it is a fondly remembered satire with a cult status.
Luke (Jasen Fisher) is a little boy whose parents take him on vacation to visit his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling). Helga has Norwegian origin and knows many things about witches, evil creatures which manage to lure small children only to kill them later. Apparently Helga has encountered a witch in her childhood. Luke seems to enjoy his grandmother's stories. When Luke's parents are killed in a car accident Helga takes the orphaned child under her custody and does her best to fill the void. When Luke is attacked by a strange woman who most probably was a witch, Helga realizes that her grandson has suffered enough already and needs a break. The two of them take a getaway trip to a luxurious British hotel by the seashore. During their residence in the hotel, a convention is being conducted by a group of women calling themselves "The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children." Their leader is Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston), an aristocratic lady whose gothic and sharp characteristics seem to vaguely ring some bells in Helga's memory. Luke accidentally attends the convention only to find out it is actually a coven of the hideous witches his granny has described to the last detail. The witches hide their ugly real faces under masks. Miss Ernst is of course the notorious Grand High Witch, the most repelling, terrifying, powerful and infernal of them all. The Grand High Witch is fed up with her underlings and decides that enough time has been wasted: therefore she forms a master plan according to which they will eliminate easily all the children in the country. It is now up to Luke and Helga to save the United Kingdom from this massacre.
The imagery used by the director is effective and plays a crucial part for the atmosphere of the movie. Congratulations to the SFX and make up crew for their awesome depiction of the bare skulled sorcerers. Yeah, yeah it is quite scary for kids but whatever. Dahl never cared for stereotypes and neither should we. The whole concept is a multileveled parody: firstly the childish phobias of mean witches are depicted pleasantly. Secondly, the underlying metaphor the film tries to pull off at how cruel these social workers and charity people can be, instead of preventing the cruelty, is funny. There are also many other humorous scenes (obviously wanting to counter balance the scary ones) like when Bruno, an overweight spoiled rich bulimic boy who was transformed into a mouse by the witches, says compliantly to his freaked parents "Don't take it so hard mom! You did after all want me to lose weight, didn't you?" Speaking of the mouse, I would also like to make a reference to the professional puppeteering and dubbing SFX by Jim Henson which are very successful. Generally the effects for this movie are well crafted and not at all dated. The director also did a good job in setting the creepy scenes or the action sequences (like the finale).
The casting was also inspired. I liked seeing Fisher in the central role, not necessarily because he gives a standout performance but because we finally get a real character and not a piece of cardboard. Luke doesn't apply to any of the stereotypes we see in cinema generally. He is not the cute and painfully sappy sweet little boy, or the nerdy goof and he is definitely NOT the do-it-all superhero who destroys everything in his wind-blowing path (a la Dennis the Menace or Home Alone). Mai Zetterling (who is also the narrator) gives a warm performance as the wise grandmother and also the most dramatic one of the entire film. She provides therefore the human element of tragedy in the movie. Anjelica Huston arguably steals the show in a challenging role. She is exceptional being threatening and spooky (not necessarily in her real grotesque appearance but with her ice cold stare). The kid who plays Bruno adds much comic relief in an obviously preachy role about the sin of gluttony. Oh, there is also a cameo by a then obscure Rowan Atkinson who is sadly underused. For you obsessed Atkinson fans out there you may check him out in a verbal (albeit brief) character.
Enough said, I think. The Witches is a strange film which has a perfect (but misunderstood) balance between a dark fairy tale and a snicky adult satire. It is well worth watching for fantasy fans anywhere. I don't know if it is the best (or faithful) ADAPTATION of Dahl's novel, but I believe sincerely that it is the best MOVIE BASED on a Roald Dahl novel. Recommended? You betsa!!!!
THE WITCHES 8.5 / 10
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