Jack Clayton's The Innocents might well be one of cinema's most overlooked and outstanding ghost stories put to screen. It's quiet and subtle, but also wonderfully creepy and deceptively disturbing. It would make perfect sense then for Clayton to return to the genre he so excelled in, especially if being paired with novelist Ray Bradbury.
It would make sense, right? Now let's toss in the name "Walt Disney" and see logic ride a train out of town.
Quick Plot: In the scenic Illinois hamlet of Greentown, young Will and Jim are about to settle into a typically quiet October when, as the title hints, something wicked does indeed come.
This particular breed of evil arrives in the form of an unseasonal carnival, run by a steely eyed and magnificently creepy Jonathon Pryce as the not at all ominously named Mr. Dark. At first, the boys and their fellow townspeople are happy to ride a ferris wheel before the nips of November set in, but when a few unhappy locals disappear (and none too coincidentally, the carnival's staff seems to double) Will, Jim, and Will's self-doubting father Charles (played by a supremely wonderful Jason Robards) are forced to confront the unseemly fact that Mr. Dark's circus is not operating on the good side of morality.
Produced by Disney Studios and based on a Bradbury novel (which he himself adapted here), Something Wicked This Way comes is one of those 'children's' films of the '80s that is anything but. Though it is primarily seen through the young eyes of Will, this is a dark story, one that walks a slippery tightrope between nostalgia, mortality, and all-out fear. While it wears the scars of studio interference, confused rewrites, and a messy ending, it's also the kind of oddity that I found truly special.
The basis rolls off Bradbury's page as he smoothly translates his language to the screen. The opening narration--an apparent post-process addition--introduces us to a sleepy town and its quirky residents with careful skill. I imagine that the novel went into rich detail about the plainness of a schoolteacher spinster, but the screenwriter in Bradbury is smart enough to know that saying "You would never believe it, but she was once the most beautiful woman in town" is more than sufficient to tell us what we need to know. Though the younger actors aren't necessarily the most skilled at delivering some of the dialogue, for the most part, Bradbury's script has a strong ear that gives good actors an audio feast. When the stage-trained Pryce launches into maniacally evil poetry to seduce his latest victim or the rock solid Robards waxes on about the time he failed his son, Something Wicked This Way Comes hits its true stride. Much like the criminally underrated The Exorcist III, this is a film written by a novelist who understands how his words play on the camera and makes the most out of them.
That is not to say that Something Wicked This Comes isn't something of a mess. Certain scare sequences feel a tad forced in terms of story, even if it does give us the kind of tarantula mob scene fit for nightmares. The ending, whatever it is, doesn't make a lick of sense that I can taste. Robards reads some local mythology about how an evil carnival comes to town in October every couple of decades only to leave with the next big storm, but that still never provides any logical explanation of a) why Greentown b) why now c) what Mr. Dark's endgame is or most importantly, d) what the heck a storm has to do with it. It's clear from some library journals that a storm always marks the carnival's disappearance, but that doesn't make the surprisingly gruesome finale mean anything in terms of stakes, if it was bound to happen anyway. Also of note, and this is a MAJOR SPOILER
Do we ever learn what became of the few unlucky citizens to buy into the devil's promises? I imagined that the Disney portion of this film would show itself in a sugary coda, but instead, we just get a happy father/son moment. No word on the barber-turned-bearded lady, the youthful but blind teacher, the fully limbed former amputee or the greedy cigar shop owner. I wouldn't have a problem knowing that they DIDN'T join in the happy ending, but it's frustrating not to know.
All this aside, I found Something Wicked This Way Comes exceedingly fun in a youthfully macabre manner. This is a twisted little movie that seems primed to poke its intended young audience right where they're vulnerable, be that the threat of giant spiders or the fear of losing your parents. It doesn't work as seamlessly as it could, but when it does, it does so with committed and cruel energy that makes it hard to look away.
Oh, and in case you were wondering why this title appears during February's Attack of the Shorties, allow me to demonstrate with Exhibit A, a little person clown parade!
And more notably, Exhibit B, wherein Dark's business associate is transformed (via magical carousel, natch) into a pre-Problem Child problem child, right down to the ginger 'do and bowtie
Jason Robards brings such brilliant weight to his character, a 50something year old librarian with heart problems and a constant sense of inadequacy stemming from his age in relation to fatherhood. Charles Holloway is a fascinating and wonderfully written man in the hands of Bradbury, and Robards adds such solid presence and skill that it almost hurts
Similarly, few actors could deliver threats like "we butter our bread with delicious pain" with the same seductive musicality as Jonathon Pryce
The not so grand, yet very confusing finale
James Horner's busy musical score (an apparent post-production change that Clayton was displeased with) is extremely conspicuous and occasionally distracting, but it's also a very clear product of its time (see the similarly toned Lady In White for support). I kind of love its blaring enthusiasm, but I can see how it might break the mood for some viewers
The Ewok Movie 2: Caravan of Courage fan in me finds it near impossible to not write the title of this film as Something Wicket This Way Comes
With heart problems, limit nightly activities to one drink and one cigar
Pillows make for surprisingly effective tarantula fighting weapons
Some folks draw lightning to them as a cat sucks in a baby's breath
Lessons Cribbed By An Actor From Another Movie
If Jim Nightshade looked familiar, it may have been because you recognized him from the very different (or maybe not different at all) slasher The Funhouse, where young Shawn Carson played the final girl's younger brother. In that Tobe Hooper film, Carson watches big sis hide out in a dark ride in order to stay inside after closing hours...the very same plan he and Will use to catch some extra glimpses of Dark's Carnival. Looks like someone was taking notes
Royal Dano, playing yet another old hillbilly kook encountering some nefarious electricity at a circus with bad intentions
And hold the phone Foxy: Pam Grier as the silent but bewitching assistant to Mr. Dark
I found Something Wicked This Way Comes to be a wonderfully unusual treat from a bygone era, but I also went into the film knowing nary a detail about it. With that in mind, random sights like Pam Grier in a wedding gown or Royal Dano getting the electric chair were bound to keep me shocked, while the genuinely strong stuff--Robards hefty performance, Pryce's lyrical villain, Bradbury's intricate language--kept me glued to the screen. The film does indeed have a lot of problems in terms of its tone and story, making it even more shameful that the DVD release is so bare bones. This is a film that begs for some behind the camera discussion or deleted scenes. Without those, this is a definite recommend for a rental. It's simply too strange to not see.