Yes, it’s All Souls Day today, but I’m still feeling the Halloween season, so today I bring a discussion of the Walt Disney film ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes,’ a movie full of magic and dreams, mixed with dark and ominous visuals. In this film, we are given a great reminder of what it was like to be a kid, the innocence of looking forward to each day, and the excitement of not really knowing what it would bring. An adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name, the film attempts to bring his fantastic style of storytelling to the big screen.
A dark carnival comes to town, bringing Halloween with it a week early. Narrated by Arthur Hill, the film’s atmosphere is set with the muted oranges and browns of Fall framing the scene of a sleepy town. A lightning-rod salesman, Tom Fury (Royal Dano) sees an ominous storm looming on the horizon. Two teenage boys, Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), are typical best friends dealing with their own issues in life. Will’s father Charles (wonderfully played by Jason Robards) is an older parent with a heart that is weak. He is the town’s librarian and loves his only child dearly. Jim’s dad has left him some years ago, but Jim still holds onto the dream that his father will return. Diane Ladd performs the role of Mrs. Nightshade, a lonely single mother who misses the companionship of a man. Perhaps my favorite in this amazing cast is Mr. Dark, also known as the Illustrated Man. The role went to a then-little known Jonathan Pryce. Disney was trying to keep costs down by casting Pryce against Bradbury’s wishes of using either Peter O’Toole or Christopher Lee. Pryce brought the character to life perfectly with grace and a steely quietness setting the evil tone that brings chills at times.
The carnival comes to town uncharacteristically in late October at 3 am, but this is no ordinary carnival. Mr. Dark runs the show, and he and his evil carnies change the small town forever. The townsfolk each have a special desire, and Mr. Dark will grant them what they want; however, there is a price to pay. Two main attractions that assist in this magic are the Carousel and the Maze of Mirrors. The Carousel allows the rider to age according to whether it goes forward, resulting in an older age, or backward, making you younger. The Maze of Mirrors shows a person their fears and desires, trapping them inside forever. There is much character depth, even in the secondary characters in this story, making it easy to become engrossed in the film. Pam Grier is stunning as the Dust Witch, a woman who uses dark magic at Mr. Dark’s bidding.
The ending sequence of the film is highly symbolic, featuring a spectacular tornado which rips apart the entire carnival. Just before the storm hits, Mr. Dark becomes trapped on his very own carousel moving forward. His corpse eventually tumbles off at the end of this gruesome scene. The approaching storm in the beginning ties in nicely to the violent one at the end, bringing to fruition the foreshadowing of the lightning-rod salesman.
Walt Disney Pictures acquired the rights to complete this film because, at the time, they were intending to evolve from children’s animated movies to more adult-themed films (see other ’80s Disney films like ‘The Black Hole’ for more attempts at this transformation). At first, they hired Bradbury himself to write the script, and he recommended Jack Clayton as the director. During the process, Bradbury and Clayton’s views on the film changed. Bradbury wanted to keep the film as close to the novel as possible, while Clayton desired a more family oriented movie. At odds with each other, Clayton hired John Mortimer to revise Bradbury’s script. Test screenings did not garner positive audience feedback, so Disney re-commissioned Bradbury for the opening narration and a new ending. Spending an extra $5 million, Disney had the film re-edited and re-scored, bringing the budget to an estimated $19 million. Even then, Bradbury did not feel it was the best it could be.
Critics gave good reviews, and it won the 1984 Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film. Over the years, the overall reception of the film has declined, yet it is still highly regarded today. And it’s easy to see why: the pacing is good, the ambiance is excellent; add to that a top-notch cast and more-than-competent directing, and you have a highly entertaining movie.
The little kid in me wants to say, hey, an evil carnival could come to town, granting wishes and taking prisoners. Sure. Alas, this is probably not going to happen “IRL.” However, the dynamic between Will and Jim is completely believable, and the inhabitants of the town are incredibly realistic. And carnivals do exist. Let’s just be thankful they are not of this evil nature.
Bradbury is a master storyteller, and this tale is one of my personal favorites. The depth he gives his characters, and the ability to relate combined with the ease of flow, character and story arcs blend together to make one wickedly awesome premise.
Clayton’s view of this story translated well onto film. The sets were full and the atmosphere rich. Given that this movie was made in 1983, the effects are obviously old, but they have weathered the test of time in a classy way. A particularly great scene is the one in which Mr. Dark confronts Charles Halloway in the library. Pryce’s acting ability is phenomenal. You can feel the power and fear his character demands.
When it’s all said and done, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a timeless classic. Snuggle up on the couch under a warm blanket with a drink of choice, and pop in this movie. Make sure your pumpkins are lit and listen for the train to whistle, sounding the approach of the carnival. You never know when Mr. Dark will knock on your door…