There’s something different about the way that American’s celebrate Halloween. Not that they have the monopoly on this worldwide, and venerable festival. But there’s a feeling you get in American towns in the falls, the last breath of warm air, the leaves spinning in the wind, that’s unique, and that feeling is very much to the fore in Disney’ Something Wicked This Way Comes. Something Not Typical of Disney would be an alternative title for this adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s book, with a script written by the author himself. Post-production rethinks may have lessened the potency of Bradbury’s ideas, but this is still a terrific family film that keys into the spooky rather than the outright scary.
In a scenario beloved by Stephen King, and part inspiration for his book Needful Things, this is the story of Green Town, Illinois, a small town where another world appears, taking the form of a travelling carnival and led by Mr Dark, played with saturnine presence by Jonathan Pryce. He’s after two boys, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, who have glimpsed the sinister secret of his shows, and while Mr Dark finds it easy to lure the other townspeople into his circus parade, the one fly in the ointment is Charles Halloway (Jason Robards Jr), Will’s father, who senses the evil purpose behind Dark’s arrival…
If you’re used to Disney offering up soul-less retreads, think again; Jack Clayton brings a Gothic sensibility to the struggle between Dark and Halloway, helped by two ideal actors who make their roles three-dimensional. There’s plenty of evidence of post-production interference, an post-Indiana Jones crowd-pleasing action scene with spiders shot long after the rest of the film was in the can. Yet most of the film exudes a homespun sense of menace and wonder, from Will and Jim’s first glimpse of the train to the Dust Witch (Pam Grier) who seeks to silence the ‘tender Christians’ whose souls Dark covets.
Bradbury’s prose gets a chance to breathe, even if the result may have caused consternation to the unwary; the opening dialogue features the disturbing image of a cat suffocating a baby’s breath, and that’s before Dark arrives. With his sinister merry-go-round and elevated heels, Pryce makes Dark the Devil incarnate, and enough to scare the most sensible adult, and the battle of wills between the two men makes for some engrossing confrontation scenes. This is a colourful, original and atmospheric film that’s perfect for the precocious; offering up horror tropes but grounded in small-town Americana, this is about the most wholesome horror film ever made, and while out of favour with Disney’s current mode, is well worth exhuming for the long, darkening nights ahead.