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VICE Movie Club - "The Witches"

I'm starting to think this movie is about a diabetic grandmother having a mental breakdown and talking to mice.
September 21, 2011, 12:00am

For this installment of the VICE movie club we selected a coven of smart-funny gals to watch and muse about the trippy, oft-overlooked gem that is The Witches. Released in the dog days of summer 1990, this fetchingly scary all-ages film was an unlikely amalgamation of three famously idiosyncratic male minds. By the end of the same year, two of them would forever cease creating.

The first, Roald Dahl, was responsible for the classic, uncompromising kids' book used as the film's source material. And in the months before his passing Dahl actually protested, cardigan curmudgeon that he was, the creative liberties taken with his original ending. Executive producer Jim Henson and his legendary Creature Shop energized the feature with imaginative, top shelf designs and animatronics, which ranged from cutely realistic to green smoke gnarly. And it was through the atmospheric, leery worldview of Brit director Nicolas Roeg (Bad Timing) that all three visions were endearingly represented on screen.


For all the hard work and panache, that summer of 1990, The Witches experienced an uncharmed fate. Opening with a hush against Darkman and Pump Up the Volume, it was lost in a trashy mist of necking undead hits like Flatliners and Ghost. (Holy fuck do we wish "trashy" still accurately summed up a summer in this era of Thor.) Also, it is worth mentioning that Anjelica Huston rocked the movie so hard that an avalanche of old queens still swears by her character on Facebook. Thus begins the fourth installment of VICE Movie Club.

I saw this movie as a child and it scared the crap out of me. Watching it now, as a 27-year-old on Benadryl via US AirwaysGogo® Wi-Fi, I'm starting to think this movie is about a diabetic grandmother having a mental breakdown and talking to mice. I still love it though. All of the disgusting details are so perfect! I have always been fascinated with witches and there was a time in my childhood when I tried to be one. I used to take the Japanese exchange student into the woods and pretend to do spells. "Pick up that stick, Yuko…we're going to need that," I would say to her. I never knew what I was doing. I just liked the idea of having witchy powers and potions and schemes. I still do. Anjelica Huston is amazing in this movie, and I hope to god I eventually play a part like that. It is my dream to be a powerful, sexy witch that transforms into a disgusting hag of a creature like she does here, so I can frighten my own children someday. I will cast a spell to make it happen.


Personally, I’m afraid of witches. Maybe it’s because they could really exist, and even today some people claim to be them. The definition of a witch is broken down five minutes into the movie: Witches hate children. They want them all dead. They want to eat, destroy, torture, and annihilate them. As I watched the film I thought of my two little boys sleeping peacefully in the next room. Their warm bodies were stretching out of their blankets and hanging over the edges of their beds. I wanted to go wake them up and have them watch the film with me so that I could exclaim "Beware! Someone could suddenly grab you walking down the street on your way to school. Basically any time you are out of my sight, a witch could grab you! Watch this movie with me and you may learn something about all the evils that lurk around you." (It’s funny. I tell my kids all the time to run from any male stranger who wants to speak to them, and to find the nearest woman for help. A mom is best. But after watching this…I’m rethinking my advice.)


There is a genius scene where the little boy barely escapes an auditorium filled with women-turned-witches. But what made the sequence really crazy was the way they all looked! I don't mean their bald heads and decrepit bodies either. I swear some of them were men in drag. I had to rewind it five times, and I’m certain they outfitted the grips and the lighting department for this. Somehow Dahl’s literary voice is comforting and witted so you knew the little boy wasn't going to get into serious trouble. Whereas in the movie, it feels like Roeg has given the little boy mushrooms and ushered him into a room of monsterous aunts. About 20 minutes later, I thought, "Maybe this isn't a good movie for my kids to see." Already this morning I saw a woman in the elevator, wearing a crazy-looking wig, scratching her neck. And she looked at my boys as if they smelled terrible. I’m sure she was a witch.

Anjelica Huston dominates The Witches as the sinister Grand High Witch. I really loved the hippie-renegade Grandmother who smokes cigars and is missing a pinkie. The orchestral score induces paranoia, and the trippy climax, when all the witches morph into mice, could be a scene out of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The creature effects, done with good old-fashioned prosthetics and make-up, are fantastically convincing. When the witches pull off their human disguises to reveal their mottled faces, stumped feet, and bald scalps, I had flashbacks to my childhood nightmares. Do kids today dream in CGI?

Not only is The Witches a family/fantasy film, it belongs to the horror genre. There are just too few movies that can be categorized as all three. At the end of the film I was a little bummed, however, when the main boy turned from a mouse back to human form. I was getting really excited to go look for a sequel where Grandma and her pet rat, aka Grandchild, go to New York and become witch slayers. Maybe we can make that our music video! All the angles and zoom-ins on random objects and the changes in perception create the film's psychedelic feel. I want to watch this film with a soundtrack by Eroc playing Norderland. The Witches also made me remember how I felt watching NeverEnding Story for the first time, or even Return to Oz starring Fairuza Balk who, of course, later starred as an amazing witch in The Craft.

This movie was crazy! It reminded me of Shelley Duvalle's Faerie Tale Theatre. Growing up, my sister and I were obsessed with those. Real creepy. So the Grandma in this is like super intense. I like how Jess said she was a witch slayer. I feel like the actress must have been related to a producer or someone who asked her to play Grandma as a favor. She was just very strange and had a weird accent. I think I’m kind of obsessed with her now. My favorite witch was the one who never spoke, she only made weird faces at Anjelica Huston. And she randomly changed her outfit twice. I feel like a lot of goth bands need to watch Huston's performance to score fashion tips because she was just so sexy and scary! In the end, I would say this is a movie about a grandma and her grandson who slay all the witches of England, and then they go to the U.S. to slay some more.

Anjelica Huston is major in The Witches, which lies about equidistant between Suspiria and Practical Magic on the spectrum of black arts-themed movies. Statuesque with an aristocratic nose and severe bobbed haircut, Huston joins the coven of cinematic witches as a more natural fit than actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sandra Bullock, and Neve Campbell. As a role, the witch is a fitting allegory for the fantasy persona of Hollywood’s leading actresses who find themselves vilified for their power, wealth, and beauty. We’re suspicious of their talents—certain that they made some sort of diabolical barter to get where they are. Maybe that’s why we’re also so obsessed with their babies; we’re amazed that unlike Roald Dahl’s witches, they seemingly like children. (God knows why, because, let’s be real, kids do smell like dog shit half the time.)

Dude, I have no idea how a kid could watch The Witches and not have nightmares. I got super stoned before watching it and the scene where the witches take off their "human masks" freaked me out so much I had to press pause and do something else. Also, I know a rat when I see one, and those mice in the film were totally rats. Although my rat, Sarah Michelle Gellar, is much bigger in comparison, so they were probably baby rats. Either way, rodents get such a bad rep in movies and in real life. I yelled at a lady from Delta Airlines on the phone one time for being "speciest" because they wouldn't allow SMG on the plane. This really calls for some type of rodent equality movement, I think.

I did wonder if the boys who turn into "mice" would live as long as humans or as long as rodents? I was honestly disappointed when they turned back at the end. There could have been so many good sequels if they had stayed "mice." Or even better, a 90s TV spin-off about growing up with everyone staring at them, just trying to figure out where they fit in this mixed-up world. But whaever, Anjelica Huston looks hot as fuck, with her "human mask" I mean.

Roeg's earlier films, Walkabout and Don't Look Now, dealt with children losing a suicidal parent and two well-to-do parents losing a daughter, respectively. At his height, he was fond of utilizing the bummer like a cowbell. Nevertheless it's surprising, whether on a first or a third viewing of The Witches, when the child protagonist's parents die minutes after being introduced. It's all about the execution.

Following a curt goodbye to Grandma and their only son, the parents gallivant out the front door into a black car for a dressy night on the town. Both are framed oddly from the ground up, faceless blurs, like uncaring spectres of maturity and the unknown. Tonally the scene is lasting, since by this time, the lore and omnipresent threat of modern-day witches is already firmly established. So, the first act perfectly combines the worldweary beliefs and ghostly off-kilter zooms of Roeg with the lifelong contempt for adults characteristic of Dahl.

These witches are not in the mold of cherubic pranksters, nor are they of the broom-riding sorcerer class typified of witches of cinema from any decade. These bitches are cackling spinsters who abduct and murder pre-teens with monied braggadocio. And the viewer finds out the extent of their organization when Anjelica Huston strikes her classic Vogue-esque Führer: there's some real NAMBLA x Bilderberg x Harpo Productions shit.

In the film's second half, when the main kids are zapped by Henson's workshop, one might expect the preamble of dark clouds to dissipate into a cascade of mouse stunts. But the reliance on rodent vision still offers an unflattering, private perspective of humans, not to mention the creaky, dustmite world about them. And as I watched Huston's hairless rat avatar be executed--trapped under glass and cleaved--I was reminded of the mouse (above) I trapped last year. It was scurrying through a Chelsea kitchen at 3 AM, saw me grab a beer from the fridge, and idiotically dove into an empty carafe. I promptly tossed a glue trap on that fucker, before depositing the back-flipping, paw-fretting furball, glass tomb and all, down a trash chute, accompanied by a Kings of Leon press kit for good measure.

_Previous VICE Movie Club on _Bad Ronald.
Gif courtesy of Molly Soda.