(1983) Directed by Jack Clayton; Written by Ray Bradbury; Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury; Starring: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Cheryl Ladd, Pam Grier, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson; Available on DVD
“Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin.” – Charles Halloway (excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes)
“Tasteless fare, funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds; that is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet…” – Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce)
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.
Upon its release, Something Wicked This Way Comes received a less than enthusiastic reception from critics, who decried it as too dark for kids and not compelling enough to hold the attention of adults. Home video guides (including my beloved Psychotronic Video Guide) similarly dismissed the film as nothing special, which always seemed unjust to me. The film falls within Disney’s transitional period between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the studio struggled to find its feet among its competitors, adding more “mature” fare to its stable, such as The Black Hole, Tron and The Black Cauldron. While none of these titles were big successes from a critical or box office standpoint, they have earned a loyal fan base. On the other hand, Something Wicked This Way Comes never quite garnered this same following. I had the pleasure of seeing this at the now-vanished Mann National theatre in Westwood, California, and although I was a little older than the two main characters, it left a lasting impression.
Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents), with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury (adapted from his 1962 novel*), Something Wicked This Way Comes depicts a 1930s Norman Rockwell-esque town turned on its ear. Underneath the town’s idyllic exterior lies a foundation of fear, regret and despair. James Horner’s effective score does much to elevate the tension, effectively communicating the shift from light to dark. Told through the lens of two pre-teen boys, Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), we witness the strange metamorphosis that occurs after Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium unexpectedly appears one autumn night.
* According to Bradbury’s 1998 afterward to his novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes originated from an unpublished short story “The Black Ferris,” which he developed into a screenplay for Gene Kelly to direct.
Jason Robards is instantly likeable and relatable as Will’s aging father, Charles Halloway, who proves it’s not youth, athletic prowess or bravado that make a father, but experience and wisdom. Although he’s older than the other parents in town, he keeps a young perspective, possessing a mischievous quality. At times, he seems more of a co-conspirator with Will than a parent. While he spends his hours as a librarian, buried in books, he enjoys living vicariously through Will’s exploits. His darker side harbors regret, which he keeps close to his chest, stemming from an incident when his son almost drowned. He’s at a point in his life where he has more years behind than ahead of him, and he must struggle to find peace with that grim reality.
Jonathan Pryce exudes a subtle menace as the as the carnival’s proprietor Mr. Dark. One by one, he seduces the townspeople with the false promise of fulfilling their respective hearts’ desires. Will and Jim’s teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) longs to return to a time when she was young and pretty. Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) the barber, dreams of being surrounded by lustful, adoring women. Ed, the bartender (James Stacy), an amputee, wishes to be whole again. In one of the most haunting scenes, Mr. Dark tempts Charles with the promise of restoring his youth, only to take the years away, casually tearing out pages from a book. As the scene plays out, we can feel Charles’ anguish and exhaustion, as Mr. Dark saps his life energy.
There’s much to like about the film, with its pervasive sense of dread, but at times the film threatens to wallow in ersatz nostalgia. The all-too-obvious movie set town appears a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and the kids manage to never say anything more harsh than “darn.” With so many talented performers, the weakest link is the two young leads. As he appears in the film, Jim Nightshade is underwritten, hardly the free-spirited rogue depicted in the novel. In all fairness, Carson isn’t given much to do, but his bland performance doesn’t add much life to the character. Peterson is serviceable, but not exceptional as Will. Thanks to Robards, his best moments are when we see father and son together.
Bradbury’s story evokes a simpler time that never existed, yet you somehow wish it did. The odd mixture of sentimentality with the macabre seems to be a strange brew, but it’s oddly endearing. There’s no magic formula that determines why some movies succeed while others are doomed to relative obscurity, but it’s clear audiences weren’t quite ready for a melancholy kids movie that dared to include adult themes. Re-visiting the film in the theater many years later* reinforced my original assessment. Movies aimed at kids didn’t necessarily have to be all kid’s stuff. Something Wicked This Way Comes at once embraces youth, and is a poignant meditation on what it means to grow old. It’s sobering to reflect on the fact that I’m now closer in age to Robards than the young lead actors in the film. But this just reinforces the need, as in Charles Halloway, to find peace with who I am. Far from mere kid’s stuff, indeed.
* I was lucky enough to catch the film several years back at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and share the experience with my son. I’m sure Charles would have approved.