Michelle Erica Green wrote this review.
There’s no denying the negative stereotyping in Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, based on Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name. It’s a guilty pleasure, watching sophisticated women degraded by a little boy whom they’ve turned into a mouse. Adults will have an easier time than the intended young audience in recognizing the satiric elements of the film, but for some viewers that may not make it more tolerable; works of art like this one contribute to the demonization of pagans and practitioners of folk medicine historically and in our own era.
Yet the archetype of the terrifying child-killer witch is not based on the reputed practices of any one religion or craft. It arises from legends about Jews, Romani and Christian heretics, and English and German performers of hearth magic. Moreover, psychoanalysts like Bruno Bettelheim have modified our understanding of the bad witch from a historical figure to an emotional threat. Once we grasp all the sex and death underlying the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, once we’ve heard that witches are supposed to represent our own oedipal lusts and fears, we move out of the realm of history to a different debate — whether the icon of the witch serves as a misogynistic attempt to portray independent females as unnatural, or as a strong image of women unfettered by social conventions.
As a woman who’s always felt empowered by the possibility of wicked witches, even when faced with the terrifying images from The Wizard of Oz or Sleeping Beauty, I tend to favor the latter perspective. The Witches is an outré characterization, but it isn’t about pagans. Grandma Helga warns at the start of the film that witches wear ordinary clothes, live in ordinary houses, work ordinary jobs, and use wigs and designer shoes to hide their bald heads and toeless feet. The mask of the Grand High Witch hides an enormous nose, warts and scabby skin. These witches are akin to the wicked stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but inverse; they don’t put on ugliness as a disguise, but beauty. They are a sisterhood with little use for men and none for children — the witches hate children above all else.
So, naturally, the story begins with a young orphan boy discovering the existence of witches. Unlike Harry Potter’s delightful entry into the world of magic, young Luke stumbles into a creepy coven disguised as the ladies of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Grand High Witch Miss Ernst has a secret plan to turn all the children in England into mice. Even though Grandma Helga has been aware of the evil witches for years, she cannot protect Luke and his friend Bruno from becoming the first victims of the scheme.
Adult viewers won’t find much depth in the witches, whom we see through a child’s scared, self-centered eyes. Nor will viewers find much depth in the women, who are characterized as good or evil based on their commitment to traditional female roles. The witches use eroticism and motherly affection as costumes or business suits but, underneath, they’re neither sexy nor maternal. The “good women” in the film have some magical abilities of their own, yet they define themselves by their commitment to children: Luke’s elderly grandmother lives for her descendant, and a lone young witch floats through as a fairy godmother rather than a goddess of the flesh.
The Grand High Witch is embodied by Anjelica Huston, who can be equally terrifying as a space pirate, a Mafia princess or the Lady of the Lake (the same year she made The Witches, she earned an Oscar nomination as the murderous non-maternal mob mother in The Grifters who’s even scarier than Miss Ernst). She’s the epitome of the wicked stepmother, feigning love for children she wants out of the way. At first, she’s too powerfully erotic for Luke to trust her, then she’s so hideously non-maternal that even the scent of a child brings out her villainy. She terrifies children, but as Huston chomps scenery and schemes global dominion, adults like me find it hard not to love her. The same goes for Rowan Atkinson as the blundering hotel manager who wants nothing more than to impress his guests; naturally, children and mice make things much too messy for his tolerance, causing his thin facade of control to shred in all directions.
The boys must find a way to save the other children from the witches’ plot while trapped in small, furry bodies. Since hotel employees as well as witches use broomsticks, this leads them into great danger — and some comical situations in hotel restaurants and corridors. There’s great fun in being a mouse, since Luke becomes faster and more mobile than he ever could be before when stuffed into clothes and schoolrooms. Now that he knows the threat to himself and his grandmother, he can confront it. In a sense, this is the safest Luke has felt since the deaths of his parents.
The Witches may be too scary for many young viewers, not only because of the threat to children but because the world seems such a cruel place. The opening witch’s-eye view of the frozen countryside sets the tone for a world of tragic accidents and threats both magical and mundane. In this regard it’s like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, also based on a Dahl story, though The Witches is much darker.
That’s good news for grown-ups, since the movie plays like adult action-adventure, without the cutesiness of Disney films with talking animals. We never really doubt that the hero will prevail, yet we hold our breath during innovative chase sequences and bite our nails as first-rate camera work lets us feel the boys’ sense of being chased and trapped. The witches and wizards from Jim Henson’s creature shop have created mouse incarnations for Luke and Bruno that achieve the realism of the more recent special effects triumph Stuart Little. The mice are both adorable and believable. It’s very hard to tell when you’re watching a real rodent versus an animatronic puppet.
Roeg makes wonderful use of his cast of veterans, milking all the exuberant “Mouse!” moments in the script as a contrast to the deadpan British wit of Atkinson, Brenda Blethyn and Jane Horrocks. The Witches reminds me of every movie witch who ever terrified me as a child…and offers me the opportunity to laugh at them, or identify with them. Luke feels very small, besieged by evil and already suffering from a crippling loss, yet he discovers inner strength and the power of love. Even those who find the images of witches degrading may admire the stylish and clever fashion with which the filmmakers chase children’s nightmares into place.
(Jim Henson Company, 1990)