Dir:- Jack Clayton
Starr:- Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Ellen Geer, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson
Scr:- Ray Bradbury
DOP:- Stephen H. Burum
Producer(s):- Peter Douglas, Dan Kolsrud
Between 1976 and 1984 Disney attempted to diversify from their patented brand of wholesome family fare. During this period a raft of movies were released that although still aimed primarily at children were clearly much darker in both tone and content. The 1983 adaptation of Raymond Bradbury’s classic Shakespeare-referencing, carny horrorshow novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, sits alongside the likes of Escape from the Dark (1976), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), The Black Hole (1979), The Watcher in the Woods (1980), Return to Oz (1985) and The Black Cauldron (1985) as emblematic of this awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. At the time Disney was not alone in this trend toward the maturation of kids films. The early-to-mid eighties, in particular, saw bleak works like The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) and The Neverending Story (1984) brought to the big screen during holiday season. Whilst blockbuster fare like The Goonies (1985) and Ghostbusters (1984) (as well as the essentially adult Gremlins (1984), by Joe Dante) pushed the envelope in terms of what constituted family entertainment. This made growing up in this period akin to a late-Victorian childhood, where a moral education appeared most effectively conveyed through the restrained use of horror and pathos (think Dickens, Le Fanu, M.R. James, M.P. Shiel and the later Edwardians like Algernon Blackwood).
Ray Bradbury’s source novel is a remarkably dense and allusive work that deals primarily with the mutability of good and evil. It was inspired by Bradbury’s own youthful encounters with a travelling carnival and has much of a child’s curiosity and wonder at its core. Bradbury had initially conceived of the novel as a film script for his good friend Gene Kelly, but failure to attract the necessary studio backing led Bradbury to flesh out his narrative idea into a novel-length work. Disney bought up the rights to the novel from Bradbury in the mid-seventies and commissioned the author to work upon his own adaptation. They also gave Bradbury a degree of artistic control on the project that saw the producer/director Jack Clayton – who famously directed the eerily compelling The Turn of the Screw adaptation The Innocents (1961) – employed to helm the movie. Clayton was hired on Bradbury’s recommendation, as a result of having developed a good working relationship during their time together on the 1976 adaptation of Moby Dick. With this in mind it seems odd then that one of the biggest difficulties that Something Wicked This Way Comes faced, during production, was Bradbury and Clayton’s increasingly divergent conceptions of how the finished film should look. For Bradbury it was essential that the movie retained the core of the novel’s moral incertitude. Clayton, however, was much more pragmatically focused upon making the material accessible enough to as wide an age group as possible. As a result of this creative conflict the finished film has an unevenness of tone that somehow manages to capture the essence of the novel, without staying all that faithful to it.
The film is set in a bygone forties-era, small town America of barbershops and soda fountains. Two teenage boys Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), one blonde-haired and one black-haired, bond over their frustrated affections for their fathers. In Will’s case his father Charles (Jason Robards) is a world-weary, bookish and fearful man, riven with regret, who cannot bear to spend time with his son since he embarrassingly failed to save him from drowning in a fast-flowing river. Will was rescued, but by Jim’s father Harry, something that Charles seemingly cannot forgive himself for. Jim has an equally problematic relationship with his own father, as Harry has absented himself from the family home and has not been seen by wife, nor son, since. These withdrawn, or absent, paternal figures seem to have defined their own children’s adventurousness and strength of character. Will embraces action to almost the same degree that his father recoils from it, whilst Jim has the kind of reckless courage that stems from his father’s own example.
The town they inhabit is the very definition of idyllic, as it is a place where little of consequence seems to break the sweet slumber that has fallen over its residents. The adults of the town all seem to be somnambulists. From the barber Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) to the matronly school teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), they seem incapable of affecting change in themselves and initially repress their desires for a different life under the prevailing benign contentedness that pervades the community. It is this deep-rooted and unacknowledged dissatisfaction that brings Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his Pandemonium Carnival to town. Dark is a demon, if not the devil, who animates a beguiling Dust Witch (Pam Grier) and sets about giving the townsfolk what they truly desire. Yet these acts are by no means altruistic, as they are simply cunning illusions engineered to enslave the townsfolk within the diabolical carnival, allowing Dark to feast upon the marrow of human misery and despair. Both Will and Jim stand in Dark’s way, as they are self-possessed youths who have yet to feel the crippling doubts and fears of their elders. Their curiosity, their vitality is the very thing that Dark most fears, as it contains the potential for lightning and love, the powers that can destroy the dour and depressing illusions of the carnival. In this way a crucial ancillary role is that of Tom Fury (Royal Dano), the lightning man, who goes around selling conductor rods that channel lightning away from buildings. Fury manages to sell one of his rods to Jim, which acts as a vital defence against the very worst that Dark can do and ultimately brings about the storm which is Dark’s downfall.
Such, almost allegorical, narrative ideas can seem more than a little muddled when transferred from book to big screen and in fact Bradbury (and an uncredited John Mortimer) jettison much of the novel’s explanatory material, making the film all the harder to follow. Yet one thing that Clayton and Bradbury have been able to capture and transport from page to screen almost perfectly is the rather intense atmosphere of dread and fear that runs through the core of the source material. James Horner’s wonderfully chilling soundtrack supplies much of this intoxicating mood. However, there is also some impressive visual horror that seems all the more authentic in light of modern CGI blandness. One particularly horrific sequence involves an invasion of tarantulas that is up there with the insect infestation sequence in Creepshow for the sheer, visceral repulsion it evokes. Pam Grier’s silent performance as the malevolent Dust Witch is also queasily evocative of Poe’s best work, her veiled beauty occasionally morphing into a Munch like personification of evil and anguish. The carnival set features two extraordinary elements. The first of these is the Mirror Maze, that ultimately serves as the scene of the final encounter between Charles, the boys, the Dust Witch and Mr. Dark. The second is the Merry-go-round, upon which people either grow rapidly younger or older. In the Mirror Maze Bradbury seems to combine elements from Hesse and Snow Whitethat Clayton then reproduces in a similarly disorienting manner to the famous closing sequence of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). On the Merry-go-round, when Bruce M. Fischer’s Mr. Cooger is reduced to a small child, the film uses a highly effective hallucinatory visual trick that harks all the way back to the very origins of cinema.
Despite the film’s plot failings it is a striking work of cinema because of this focus upon the origins and defining characteristics of the medium, namely as a source of illusion. The opening sequence that has a train approaching the screen in the dead of night, plumes of steam billowing from the engine stack, a bright white light piercing the darkness, is a direct reference to that most exhilarating of cinematic moments L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), seeming to act as the blackened mirror image of that moment of technological magic. Later on in the movie various visual effects are deployed that make the viewer all too aware of the artifice and illusion of the film itself, most impressively in a stippled lightning effect, toward the end of the film, that seems to convert an empty field into a threatening alien landscape. When these moments of visual virtuosity are allied to the disturbing spectacle of a carnival promenading down the town’s main street, Jonathan Pryce marching at its front decked out in black top hat and tails, cane in hand, then the film appears to be self-consciously using the form as a means of examining ‘strangeness’.
There are familiar elements in the movie that hark back to works like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Clayton’s own earlier effort The Innocents. Yet, one surprising aspect of the film is the way in which it seems to serve as a visual blueprint for the far more sophisticated Hungarian work The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), from the legendary cinematic auteur Béla Tarr. Perhaps, it points up an unrecognised, or unacknowledged, Bradbury influence upon the novelist, and Tarr collaborator, László Krasznahorkai. In another cultural crossover, the singer Tom Waits also seems to be pilfering a little of Pryce’s devilish magnetism in his promo video for the song ‘In the Neighbourhood’, from his career-changing album Swordfishtrombones (1983). There are also parallels to be drawn between the smooth visual darkness of the film and later ghostly eighties works such as Tim Burton’s uproarious Beetlejuice (1988) and Frank LaLoggia’s sombre fable Lady in White (1988).
As well as the unique look of the film, Clayton also manages to elicit some very strong performances from the likes of Pryce, Robards and Grier. Robards was always most impressive when playing characters who combined a mixture of stoic resolve with resigned world-weariness. His turn here as the emotionally stunted librarian and father Charles Halloway, is one that manages to work out almost every imaginable permutation of despair and regret, without engaging in the fanciful histrionics of a born-again Hamlet. Robards’ still central performance could have allowed Jonathan Pryce to run amok in the hammiest of ways in the role of Mr. Dark (maybe Stephen King was thinking of Pryce’s performance when he wrote the character of Leland Gaunt in his 1991 novel Needful Things). However, Pryce is far too subtle an actor to grandstand Pacino-style. His performance is remarkable for the way in which it suggests menace whilst exhibiting so much restraint. Perhaps the most insidious of all images in the film is that of the seductive Pam Grier. Her performance as the Dust Witch is one that is so powerfully effective precisely because she does so very little. The slight gesture of her hand, or faint nod of her head become quiet little moments of horror, that force the viewer to watch on whilst all the time indicating that indeed something wicked this way comes.