Much as Ian Fleming did with “Dr. No”, Roald Dhal dismissed the film version of his novel “The Witches” as ‘utterly appalling’ and much like Fleming was, he’s was being far too harsh.
When Luke’s parents are killed in a car accident, his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) accompanies him back to England, regaling him with tales of the witches who walk among everyday folk. When she’s taken ill, the pair travel to the seaside for a recuperative holiday only to discover that their hotel is the venue for the Grand High Witch to address the entire population of British witches.
Easily on a par with the other feted Dhal adaptations, Nicholas Roeg’s “The Witches” manages to transfer Dhal’s trademark dark irony and penchant for exploring the sinister nature of the adult world from a child’s point of view more successfully than some of the others and while there are deviations from the source novel, it’s really only the very end which is markedly different, albeit different enough to disgust the author.
In one of his most straightforward narratives, director Nicholas Roeg nevertheless infuses the film with an off-kilter slightly fantastic edge; a subtly exaggerated hyper-real air that helps sell the whimsical fantasy and grotesque machinations of the witches. Our heroes, plucky Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his cigar smoking granny Helga are immensely likeable, particularly Mai Zetterling who brings a Yoda-like wisdom and twinkly-eyed low cunning to Helga. Rowan Atkinson is good value as the Hotel Manager who bumbles his way from problem to problem while being totally unaware of the grand battle between good and evil being fought around him, but the film belongs to Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch. Huston clearly has an absolute blast playing the villain of the piece, an overly theatrical grande dame of evil, a pantomime Greta Garbo whose mercurial mood keeps everyone about her on their toes. There’s a further smattering of recognisable British thespian talent in the supporting cast, and keep an eye open for the Witches’ Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children meeting where you’ll see Michael Palin in an uncredited cameo as one of the attendees.
Although it boasts some tremendous creature work from the Henson Creature Workshop, there are signs here and there that the film was straining against the limitations of its budget (the Production company went out of business prior to release and the film was sold on to Warner Brothers) and some of the scenes would have benefited from better special effects but thankfully the performances carry it through these minor wobbles.
Very British and, despite his reservations, quintessentially Roald Dhal, “The Witches” is a tremendously witty dark fairy tale and an underappreciated classic of spooky family cinema.