Suitably Autumnal, with Halloween overtones, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” sets out to create and then subvert the Norman Rockwell archetypal small American town. The story cuts right to the heart of the fragility of the American dream and the constant paranoia that somehow, their self-evident utopian land of the free and home of the brave is vulnerable to corruption and decay only by dark temptations from without its borders. Its this key and ever-present flaw in the American psyche that Ray Bradbury sets out to explore in his novel which he himself adapted for the screen.
In Green Town, Illinois, best friends Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) are heading home after detention for ‘whispering in class’ when they encounter a vagabond lightning rod salesman who tells the boys of a strange travelling circus, Mr Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. Jim is hopeful the travelling show will visit their town but Will is fearful as most carnivals end their tours long before Halloween. When the ominous Mr Dark (Jonathan Pryce) rides into town on a dark midnight and sets up his massive carnival in a matter of seconds, the boys are both thrilled and terrified. Before long, the forces of darkness manifest in tempting and tantalising wish fulfilment, seducing the fine townsfolk of Green Town. The boys, and Will’s father (Jason Robards), the town librarian, may be the only ones standing in the way of Mr Dark’s intention to take control of the town and condemn the souls of its population to eternal damnation.
Originally conceived as a movie, Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay in 1958, intended to be a directorial vehicle for Gene Kelly but when the production fell through, Bradbury rewrote into a novel. It was picked up again by Paramount but again development stalled and, finally, Disney acquired it, seeing it as a perfect fit with their then strategy of moving into older-skewing entertainment, inspired by the success of the likes of “Time Bandits” and “The Dark Crystal”.
It’s a slow burn creepiness, rather than an out and out kid-friendly horror, the film is a classier, more elegant version of a really tight, high-quality episode of “Goosebumps”, but bolstered by a terrific performance from a young Jonathan Pryce as the Mephistophelean master of ceremonies. More notable now, maybe, for the properties it inspired: Stephen King’s “Needful Things” owes a great deal to this novel and movie and Rick & Morty’s “Something Ricked This Way Comes” lifts much of its source material directly from this movie, the film still has much to offer in its own right.
Like many of Disney’s hesitant steps into a young adult market which hadn’t yet really been defined, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was a troubled production, which eventually compromised its box office performance. Bradbury’s screenplay was rewritten without his knowledge, resulting in him leaving the project. The original score, by Georges Delerue, was deemed too dark by Disney and replaced by a score by James Horner. All in all, Disney spent a further $5million dollars on reshoots, re-editing and re-scoring the film. Even then, initial test screenings went badly and Disney re-hired Bradbury to write the warm, folksy scene-setting opening narration and a new ending. They ditched some, for the time, pioneering CGI effects sequences too, robbing the film of some of its cutting-edge appeal.
Ultimately, its troubled journey to the screen couldn’t be disguised and audiences at the time punished it with disinterest. Bradbury himself summed it up as ‘not a great film, no, but decently nice one’ and he’s pretty spot on. But if you’re looking for something that’s a little bit spooky, a little bit creepy and has bags of atmosphere to watch as a family, you could do much worse than check out charming, chilling fable.