Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Nicolas Roeg|
|Produced by||Jim Henson
|Screenplay by||Allan Scott|
|Based on||The Witches
by Roald Dahl
|Music by||Stanley Myers|
|Edited by||Tony Lawson|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
25 May 1990
24 August 1990
30 September 1990
The Witches is a 1990 comedy-fantasy film based on the book of the same name by Roald Dahl. It was directed by Nicolas Roeg and produced by Jim Henson Productions for Lorimar Film Entertainment and Warner Bros., starring Anjelica Huston as Miss Evangeline Ernst/Grand High Witch, Mai Zetterling as Helga Eveshim, Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Stringer, and introducing Jasen Fisher as Luke Eveshim.
During a holiday staying with his grandmother Helga in Bergen, Norway, the mind of a Luke Iversen, a nine-year-old American boy, is filled with stories about witches: demonic females who hate children. They have wigs that they wear over their heads, they wear gloves to hide their claws, and they have purple eyes. Helga gives Luke an insight into the world of the unexplained by describing the details that concern the memories she has about something that happened some 60 years earlier, when she was a young girl that surrounds another girl who was her close friend and neighbour. That girl disappeared, having been targeted by a witch, and for six weeks afterwards no trace of her was found, despite the efforts of police and local people. Then an image of the girl was found in a painting at her home, and as the years passed the girl's appearance and position in the painting changed until she eventually disappeared from the canvas. Luke's grandmother continues the story and she mentions further when she had come close to a witch herself, she had the experience of losing one of her fingers because of the witch, although she does not explain how this happened.
After Luke's parents are killed in a car crash, Helga takes him under her wing and they move to England in a nice English village in the countryside. While playing in his treehouse and gathering his toy cars, Luke has his first encounter with a witch when a strange lady in black walks up to him below his treehouse. She seems friendly towards him but as he takes a closer look it appears she has purple eyes and he realizes that she must be a witch. She persuades Luke to come down and take the snake and the chocolate from her. The situation makes Luke feel scared especially when she mysteriously knows his name. She aborts her attempt to lure Luke away when Helga comes outside looking for him, encouraging him to come back inside with her.
On Luke's birthday, Helga becomes unwell because she has diabetes so when the doctor comes to see her the doctor suggests to her it would make her feel better by going to the seaside. Helga and Luke stay at the Excelsior Hotel by the beach in Cornwall. When he and his granny are sitting down to afternoon tea with the other guests, Luke gets to know a wealthy boy named Bruno Jenkins and they become good friends with each other, but straight away it gets him into a spot of trouble with the hotel manager Mr. Stringer the moment a housekeeping maid, (who also happens to be Stringer's secret girlfriend) discovers Luke having games with his pet mice, William and Mary. Stringer gives Luke his permission to keep the mice in his hotel room as long as he keeps them in their cage. Soon afterwards Luke quietly goes inside the ballroom that has been hired as an assembly hall where he decides to make a little quiet corner giving him some space for teaching his mice without Mr Stringer knowing what he is doing.
The members of the "Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children" have arranged to use the services of the hotel ballroom where they are going to hold a yearly meeting and Luke watches them arrive. His sighting of a witch comes back to haunt him as there is something about the people that doesn't add up. However, Luke suspects something is amiss when he sees one woman with purple eyes and another reach under her hair to scratch at her scalp. It turns out that the "RSPCC" is really the yearly convention of all of England's witches. By the time he realizes this, the doors to the ballroom are locked and Luke can't escape.
The chairwoman, a German woman named Evangeline Ernst, goes on stage and prompts the witches to remove their shoes, gloves and wigs. She then pulls off her own wig and mask—revealing herself to be the hideous and hunchbacked global ruler of all witches, the Grand High Witch. After scolding the witches for their lack of progress in destroying England's children, incinerating one of them for questioning her, the Grand High Witch tells them that are to buy sweet shops while presenting them with her latest creation--"Formula 86," a magic potion which can turn the drinker into a mouse within two hours if given in a small dose. To demonstrate, having given him a chocolate bar laced with her formula earlier, the Grand High Witch lured Bruno into the assembly hall with an earlier promise of chocolate. To Luke's terror, and the audience's delight, Bruno turns into a mouse and flees, leaving behind his clothes. As the Grand High Witch declares the meeting over and the witches prepare to leave, one of the witches—a maid at the hotel—sniffs Luke out. Luke escapes just as the witches are about to corner him, and gets outside through a fire escape. In the meantime, while is hiding, Luke spots the witch pushing a baby's pram down a hill towards the sea, and jumps out of his hiding place just in time to save the baby. He then escapes back to his hotel room.
However, when he returns to the hotel room, his grandmother is asleep and he can't wake her up. The Grand High Witch then enters the room and captures Luke, taking him back to the ballroom with the other witches, but somehow without being spotted by other people at the hotel. She then forces him to ingest an entire bottle of the formula, the overdose turning him into a mouse within seconds. Luke then escapes as the witches stomp on his clothes to try and kill him, but he evades them and reunites with Bruno. The two make their way to Helga's room and tell her the story. Knowing of the Grand High Witch's plan, Luke devises a plan to get a bottle of the formula and douse the witches' food with it. He manages to retrieve one, after escaping from the Grand High Witch's pet cat, Liebschen. They then attempt to return Bruno to his parents and get them to flee the hotel in case things go wrong. However, Bruno's parents refuse to believe Helga's story about Bruno being turned into a mouse and declare her to be insane.
At dinnertime, Helga sneaks Luke into the kitchen and he overhears that all the witches have ordered cress soup. Despite some great difficulty, Luke manages to drop the bottle with the formula into the soup, but he is discovered by the staff and his tail is almost chopped off. By hiding inside the head chef's trouser leg, Luke escapes when the rest of the staff forcibly pull the head chef's trousers off and search frantically for him. Unfortunately, Mr. Jenkins, unsatisfied with his cock-a-leekie soup, orders a bowl of cress soup, which is only for the RSPCC group and is not on the standard menu. Helga manages to stop him from eating it and finally manages to convince him of what has happened to Bruno when he sees Bruno greet him and the rest of the witches turn into mice. Mr. Stringer and the kitchen staff enter the chaos-ridden dining room and begin killing the mice, unknowingly destroying England's witches with Mr. Stringer himself slaying the Grand High Witch after being tipped off by Helga when she trapped the rodent under a water jug. During the scuffle, Helga and Luke return Bruno to his parents, go to bed and pack their bags and leave the next day.
Some time later, back in their house in the countryside, Luke and Helga receive a trunk full of the Grand High Witch's money and her diary, something Luke had orchestrated earlier on to finance their possible mission to eradicate the evil witches around the world once and for all. Later that night, the Grand High Witch's assistant Miss Irvine, who had quit due to her mistreatment after being forced to stay upstairs during the dinner and thus escaped being turned into a mouse, arrives to the cottage. Now a good witch, Miss Irvine uses her powers to turn Luke back into a human while returning his pet mice and glasses to him. Luke and Helga see Miss Irvine out of the window and bid her farewell and showing them that being a good witch means she has real hair and normal hands. She leaves to repeat the process with Bruno.
The following people have done special puppeteer work in this film:
The Witches based on the book of the same name by British author Roald Dahl. It was the final film that Jim Henson personally worked on before his death, the final theatrical film produced by Lorimar Productions, and the last film made based on Dahl's material before his death (both Henson and Dahl died that year).
The whole section in the start of the film (until they move to the United Kingdom) was shot in Bergen in Norway. Much of the film was shot on location in the Headland Hotel (which was named "Hotel Excelsior" in the film) situated on the coast in Newquay, Cornwall. Roald Dahl originally wanted Cher to play the role of the Grand High Witch, but she was unavailable at the time because the actress was filming Mermaids. Eartha Kitt, Fiona Fullerton, Geneviève Bujold, Starr Andreeff, Olivia Hussey, Sigourney Weaver, Frances Conroy, and Liza Minnelli were all at some point considered for the part of The Grand High Witch prior to Anjelica Huston’s casting. Huston’s casting later satisfied Dahl.
The film was premiered on 25 May 1990, in London. The film took in $10,360,553 in the United States and 266,782 in Germany.
Warner Home Video first released the film on VHS in 1991. The second release (and first re-release) was on VHS and for the first time on DVD in 1999. However, both versions (and any TV screenings) use the original open matte negative of the film, instead of matting it down to 1.85:1 (or 1.66:1). More recently, the film was released in the Netherlands in 2009. This DVD is shown in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
The film contains an orchestral score composed by Stanley Myers. To date, a soundtrack CD has not been released, and the entire score remains obscure. Throughout the score, the Dies Irae appears, highly reminiscent of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique Mvt. V, "The Witches Sabbath."
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The Witches was generally well received by critics and audiences alike, but performed poorly at the box office. The film holds a rare 100% in the film critics site Rotten Tomatoes, out of 32 reviews, citing universal critical acclaim. The general consensus is: "With a deliciously wicked performance from Anjelica Huston and imaginative puppetry by Jim Henson's creature shop, Nicolas Roeg's dark and witty movie captures the spirit of Roald Dahl's writing like few other adaptations." Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, calling the film "an intriguing movie, ambitious and inventive, and almost worth seeing just for Anjelica Huston's obvious delight in playing a completely uncompromised villainess." Roald Dahl regarded the film as "utterly appalling" because of the ending that contrasted with the book.