Friday 2 June 2023

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Director: Jack Clayton
Writer: Ray Bradbury, based on his novel
Stars: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano and introducing Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s been a long time since I watched this, a Disney feature made when I was a kid young enough to be under their spell and not yet old enough to know what damage they’d done to the public domain.

I was twelve when it was released so I may well have seen it on TV a few years later as a mid-teen. I don’t think it was the right time, because I was old enough to have graduated to bona fide horror movies and would have been disappointed that the something wicked didn’t come with more gratuitous gore.

Now I’m a grandfather who’s very aware of just how much Ray Bradbury did for fantasy, I can see this from a couple of angles. After all, it’s a story about kids, like so many others, and about the magic that they can still see in the world, but it’s also a story about a father (old enough to be a grandfather) who’s allowed his life to slip by unfulfilled and who finally finds his purpose and reason to truly live.

I’m surprised at how well it stands up today, but Ray Bradbury did adapt his own novel for the script and, while I didn’t know who he was when I first saw this, I certainly do now. Most of the best aspects of the film come from him and the way director Jack Clayton, a couple of decades on from The Innocents, brought power to his fictional small town.

It’s a town where everyone knows everyone and they all have eccentricities. Mr. Halloway never takes risks, he says, smoking a cigar; he has a bad heart and feels old. Mr. Tetley sells cigars and only cares for money, playing the numbers in search of riches. Mr. Crosetti, the barber, sells youth and dreams of women. Ed the bartender only has one leg and remembers his glory days on the football field.

We focus on a couple of kids, one of whom is our narrator, remembering back to October of his twelfth year. He’s Will Halloway, quiet and thoughtful, as befits the son of a librarian. His best friend is Jim Nightshade, a budding rebel whose father is abroad, somewhere exotic and mysterious, from which he’ll bring back weird presents when he returns. Not that we expect him to do so, because we’re not twelve.

A storm is coming and ahead of it Tom Fury, a lightning rod salesman, in the ramshackle form of Royal Dano, who looks like a hobo and has a clever spiel. He’s selling protection for houses, he says, and Jim buys one to fit to his roof. We know this will have meaning and, of course, it does, once we learn about something wicked and what ramifications it brings.

The imminent storm heralds the arrival of Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival, which shakes up the town on a scale we only slowly grasp. Bradbury builds the chaos with panache and it all feels close to perfect for a while, the family friendly nature of a Spielberg movie with the darkness of something more adult. Jonathan Pryce, a nobody at the time, is magnificent as Mr. Dark, a blistering anchor for all the terror that follows. And Pam Grier is his assistant.

In keeping with her previous few movies, it doesn’t bring a lot of screen minutes for her, but she gets plenty of opportunity to make the most of them, much more akin to Fort Apache, the Bronx than Tough Enough, though no drugs are needed here because they have magic.

Her first appearance is wonderful. The boys investigate the carnival, which has arrived by train and mysteriously set up in no time flat. They find themselves inside a caravan, where they brush cobwebs off photos while we watch Pam in the shadows, behind widow’s weeds, a tarantula on her hand that she quietly strokes. Their scream triggers the carnival music.

When it opens the next day, Pam’s close to omnipresent. She’s the medium, still wearing her spiderweb veil, telling the barber that he should call those exotic women. She’s there as the cigar store owner wins $1,000 and a ticket to the ferris wheel, riding it with him, in a far more traditional veil. She’s even there caught up in the exotic show dance, with an eastern veil mostly hiding her. Perhaps the boys who watch through a flap in the tent don’t identify her, but we certainly do.

Given that all of these locals go in but none of them come out, we have to wonder just how dangerous Pam is, even though her lines are tantalisingly sparing. She acts here like this is a silent movie and she doesn’t have benefit of speech, so has to tell her stories through other means, with glances, expressions, movements, each of which she nails. It’s not a big part, but it’s a good one.

Of course, the boys figure out what’s going on and that threatens Mr. Dark’s ability to do whatever it is that he’s doing and you need to watch this yourself to figure all that out. Let’s just say that it’s as dark and as dastardly as it ought to be and I thoroughly appreciated it as an adult, able to see much more depth than I would have done as a teenager.

While Pryce dominates as Mr. Dark, stalking his way through the picture; Grier is the dark and dangerous delight, credited as the Dust Witch, who works so much of his magic; and, of course, we’re supposed to be focused on the two boys who stumble onto so much that they aren’t supposed to; the star of the picture is actually Jason Robards, as Will’s dad, Charles Halloway, who has the eventual story arc.

He’s good here too, as I’ve learned he always was, another fantastic character actor not well enough known today, but he’s hindered by his key scenes being accompanied by what might have been astoundingly good CGI for its day but is astoundingly primitive to us today. Now, some of the effects are definitely better than others, but they often take us out of the tone of the movie. This is a rare film that may well benefit from a remake, if awarded to the right filmmaker. Guillermo del Toro springs quickly to mind. Someone make it happen.

That said, I was shocked at how capably this played in 2023. I was looking forward to it, as it had been so long and I wanted a fresh look at Robards, Pryce and Grier in a Bradbury tale, but it exceeded my expectations. Those effects are sometimes troublesome and it does lag at points, but it’s still strong, especially early on, maybe for half its running time.

It’s also surprisingly traumatising, with one scene with spiders easily the stuff of children’s nightmares. I don’t remember it affecting me at all, but I was a few years older than I ought to have been when I saw it. This is a movie to watch at twelve. It’ll have an impact.

No comments: