Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Nicolas Roeg|
|Screenplay by||Allan Scott|
|Based on||The Witches|
by Roald Dahl
|Music by||Stanley Myers|
|Edited by||Tony Lawson|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$15.3 million|
The Witches is a 1990 dark fantasy comedy film directed by Nicolas Roeg, produced by Jim Henson and starring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, and Jasen Fisher, based on the 1983 children's novel of the same title by Roald Dahl. As in the original novel, the story features evil witches who masquerade as ordinary women and kill children, and a boy and his grandmother need to find a way to foil and destroy them.
The film was produced by Jim Henson Productions for Lorimar Film Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros. as the last theatrical film to be produced by Lorimar, before the company shut down in 1993. The film was very well received by critics, but performed poorly at the box office.
During a vacation with his grandmother Helga in Norway, eight-year-old American boy Luke Eveshim is warned about witches, female demons with a boundless hatred for children and who use various methods of destroying or transforming them. Helga tells Luke how to tell a witch from an ordinary woman: real witches have claws instead of fingernails which they hide by wearing gloves, are bald which they hide by wearing wigs that give them rashes, have square feet with no toes which they hide by wearing plain shoes, have blue spit which they use for ink, have a purple tinge in their pupils and have large nostrils which they use to sniff out children; to a witch, children stink of dog's droppings. Helga says her childhood friend Erica fell victim to a witch and was cursed to spend the rest of her life trapped inside a painting, aging gradually until finally disappearing a few years earlier.
After Luke's parents are killed in a car accident, Helga becomes Luke's legal guardian and they move to England. While outside, Luke is approached by a woman he quickly realizes is a witch and he escapes. On Luke's ninth birthday, Helga falls ill with diabetes. Her doctor advises they spend the summer by the sea.
At their seaside hotel, Luke meets and befriends a gluttonous but friendly boy, Bruno Jenkins. Luke gets on the bad side of the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer, after his pet mice frighten a maid. Also at the hotel is a convention of witches, masquerading as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Grand High Witch, who is the all-powerful leader of the world's witches, is attending under the name Eva Ernst.
Luke hides inside the ballroom and spies on the witches' meeting. The Grand High Witch unveils her latest creation: a magic potion to turn children into mice. They will be used on confectionery products in sweet shops and candy stores to be opened using money provided by the Grand High Witch. Bruno, who was given the potion earlier, is brought into the room. He turns into a mouse and flees.
Luke is discovered and runs to Helga in their room but finds her resting after having a dizzy spell. The Grand High Witch seizes Luke and takes him back to the ballroom. He is forced to drink the potion, turning him into a mouse, though he escapes. He finds Bruno and reunites with Helga, who has since recovered.
The mouse Luke devises a plan to kill the witches by sneaking into Ernst's room to steal a bottle of the potion, then sneaking into the kitchen and put it into the soup for the special RSPCC party. He then takes it up to Helga. They first try to get Bruno to his parents, but they do not believe Helga. Mr. Jenkins calls her a witch and tells her to take the mice away upon scaring Mrs. Jenkins.
Mr. Jenkins also orders the soup, though Helga stops him from consuming it. The Jenkins finally realise that Bruno was turned into a mouse when he says hello to them. As the witches enter the dining room, Miss Irvine, Ernst's assistant, has become disillusioned by her mistress treating her badly and banning her from the celebration, quits, and she is spared from what is about to happen.
The formula turns all the witches into mice, and the staff and hotel guests join in killing them, unknowingly ridding England of its witches. The Grand High Witch herself dies at the hands of Mr. Stringer, and Helga returns Bruno to his parents. Luke and Helga return home to where Ernst's trunk full of money and an address book of all witches in the United States is delivered.
That night, Miss Irvine visits and uses her power to revert Luke to his human form and return his pet mice, along with his glasses. She then leaves to repeat the process with Bruno.
The Witches was adapted from the children's book of the same title by British author Roald Dahl. It was the final film that Jim Henson personally worked on before his death, the final theatrical film produced by Lorimar Productions, and the last film made based on Dahl's material before his death (both Henson and Dahl died that year).
The following people did special puppeteer work in this film: Anthony Asbury, Don Austen (Bruno's mouse form), Sue Dacre, David Greenaway, Brian Henson, Robert Tygner, and Steven Whitmire (Luke's mouse form). The early portion of the film was shot in Bergen in Norway. Much of the rest was shot on location in the Headland Hotel situated on the coast in Newquay, Cornwall.
During the shoot, Rowan Atkinson caused a Mr. Bean style calamity when he left the bath taps running in his room (the frantically knocking porter was told “go away, I’m asleep”). The flood wrote off much of the production team's electrical equipment on the floor below. At the time, Huston was dating Jack Nicholson, who would frequently phone the hotel and send huge flower bouquets, much to the excitement of the staff.
The elaborate makeup effects for Huston's Grand High Witch took six hours to apply, and another six to remove. The prosthetics included a full face mask, hump, mechanized claws, and a withered collarbone. Huston described a monologue scene she had to do where "I was so uncomfortable and tired of being encased in rubber under hot lights for hours that the lines had ceased to make sense to me and all I wanted to do was cry."
The green vapour used extensively at the end of the film was oil based, and would obscure the contacts in Huston's eyes, which had to be regularly flushed out with water by an expert. Roeg chose a sexy costume for the character to wear and emphasized to Huston that the Grand High Witch should have sex appeal at all times, despite her grotesque appearance in certain scenes of the film.
Roald Dahl was incensed that Roeg had changed his original ending in the script. As a gesture of conciliation, Roeg offered to film two versions before he made his final choice: the book version where Luke remains a mouse, and the happier version where he is transformed back into a human. Upon watching the scene loyal to his book, Dahl was so moved that he was brought to tears.
However, Roeg decided to go with the changed ending, which led Dahl to demand that his name be removed entirely from the crs, and to threaten a publicity campaign against the film. He was only dissuaded from this on the urging of Jim Henson.
The film was slated to be distributed by Lorimar, but when the company dissolved their theatrical distribution operation, it wound up sitting on the shelf for more than a year after filming was completed. The film premiered on 25 May 1990, in London and was scheduled to open the same day in the United States, but following Florida test screenings earlier that year Warner Bros. delayed the American release until August. The film took in $10,360,553 in the United States, and 266,782 in Germany.
Warner Home Video first released the film on VHS and LaserDisc in 1991. The second release (and first re release) was on VHS and for the first time on DVD in 1999. Both versions (and any television screenings) use the original open matte negative of the film, instead of matting it down to 1.85:1 (or 1.66:1). It was released on the Blu-ray format in Spain only in 2017. In July 2019, a Blu-ray release from Warner Archive Collection was announced, and was released on 20 August 2019.
The film contains an orchestral score composed by Stanley Myers. To date, a soundtrack CD has not been released, and the entire score remains obscure. Throughout the score, the Dies irae appears, highly reminiscent of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique Mvt. V, "The Witches Sabbath".
The Witches received critical acclaim. The film holds a 97% on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes based on reviews from 37 critics, with an average rating of 7.66/10. The consensus reads: "With a deliciously wicked performance from Angelica Huston and imaginative puppetry by Jim Henson's creature shop, Nicolas Roeg's dark and witty movie captures the spirit of Roald Dahl's writing like few other adaptations."
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, calling the film "an intriguing movie, ambitious and inventive, and almost worth seeing just for Anjelica Huston's obvious delight in playing a completely uncompromised villainess." However, Roald Dahl himself regarded the film as "utterly appalling" because of the ending that contrasted with his book.