Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Random Film Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Mr Dark, I presume?

Dir: Jack Clayton | 1983 | 95mins | USA

'First of all it was October… full of cold winds, long nights, dark promises. Days get short, the shadows lengthen…'

A perfect time, then, to (re)watch Something Wicked This Way Comes, an underrated 1983 Disney film starring Jason Robards and Jonathan Price in his first screen role. Based on the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name and written for the screen by him too, the film begins in a typical Disney whimsical and nostalgic manner as we are shown the Norman Rockwell town of Green Town, Illinois (actually – unsurprisingly – shot in New England), where everyone knows each other and life is swell.

Life becomes unsettled with the out-of-season arrival of a strange carnival owned by the sinister Mr Dark, played by Jonathan Price. The carnival is able to make the town folk's deepest desires come true, be it vanity, money, lust or lost youth. However, their fulfilled desires come at a price. We watch the proceedings through the eyes of two boys, Will and Jim, as they witness the bizarre goings on at the carnival and provoke the wrath of Mr Dark, who seems to be in league with the devil himself.

Jason Robards is excellent as Will's elderly* father, Charles Halloway, weak, regretful and feeling guilty about being old and knowing he'll never be able to play baseball with his son (the conversations between Will and his father are perhaps the most affecting in the film). Indeed, much of the film is elegiac in tone, the seemingly contented townsfolk being revealed as bitter and regretful at life having passed them by.

Highly atmospheric and creepy with terrific set pieces – including a carousel time machine and a hall of mirrors denouement à la Lady from Shanghai – and fine music by James Horner, the film is also lyrical and literary, and not just because Charles Halloway is a librarian. As critic Roger Ebert notes, it's 'one of the rare American films to savor the sound of words, and their rhythms. That's true in the writing, and it's also true in the acting'.

Its detractors say it's a muddled and uneasy blend of lightweight horror and fantasy. Although it is slightly uneven in places, it's a film that works on a lot of levels. It's a horror and fantasy film as well as a coming-of-age drama, morality tale and allegory.

The special effects are certainly 80s-style but all the better for it; like the effects in the Hong Kong kung fu comedy horror films of the 1980s (possibly my favourite genre mash up ever), they're somehow more believable and creepy than modern CGI effects (for me, anyway), perhaps because of their tacky, homemade, amateur feel.

Jack Clayton directed the incredibly creepy film the Innocents (one of Martin Scorsese's scariest horror films of all time), another literary adaptation, this one based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, in 1961. Along with Something Wicked in 1983, they form two fine horror bookends to his career, both films, in their own ways, exploring the impact of evil on children.

(*But was Jason Robards ever young? He was no spring chicken in Peckinpah's Ballad of Cable Hogue way back in 1970; by Something Wicked (1983) he was playing a man almost near death, with a dodgy ticker, but it wouldn't be until Magnolia (1999) when he was literally playing someone on his deathbed, dying of terminal lung cancer and actually died the following year of the same disease.)


bobbyonion said...

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a forgotten gem of a film. Just when you were at the age where Disney films offered nothing but comfort and security, this one rolled along and scared the shit out of you. i don't think Disney has had the balls to make anything near this in imagination and edginess since.

Well remembered, Mr B.

Barnaby said...

Yes, I don't think Disney knew what to do with it; it's certainly darker than anything else they've released. Good point, Mr B.

Anonymous said...

Something Wicked is one of the first film to have organic CGI effects most cut out of the released film.

Barnaby said...

Ah, thanks for that. I believe Young Sherlock Holmes, two years after Something Wicked, was one of the first films to use CGI.