|man, Bob Peak's art is never less than amazing|
Director: Jack Clayton
Further back, the Ray Bradbury book upon which the film is based was assigned reading for me in 7th grade. I cannot imagine such a thing in schools now, but this was the go-go 1980's, and we were even given assignments to come up with a short story about how Mr. Dark would prey upon our insecurities. I vaguely remember something about being turned into what I realize now is the Incredible Hulk.
Special thanks to Stuart, who belongs to Disney Insiders and landed me a copy of this club-only release of Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) BluRay. Lovely presentation.
Anyway, this is such a strange little movie, one that I don't recall getting any promotion at the time of its release, nor had I seen it on the shelf at the video store. Possibly, because of the Disney label on the tape, it had been shelved with kiddie movies. Which is an interesting problem, because it's not one the book has. It just gets shelved with Ray Bradbury books. But as a film...
It stars two young boys and then Jason Robards. And, really, it's a coming of age story about coming to understand the frailty of adults through the lens of a spooky story about dark magic. It deals in avarice, lust, longing, pride, regret and all sorts of things waiting for two boys at age 13, that, even in the next three years, they'll begin to experience and understand. And, so, I appreciate what Ms. Olson was doing slipping us this book as reading at the same age as the characters.
In many ways, this film and Stand By Me - released just prior to that 7th grade year - are how I can tap back into what it was like to be that age. Best pals that seem more like brothers, and the realization that you may have differences that will eventually mean rifts and going your own paths. This film has two brothers, one alienated from the father in his house, the other with a father that's gone walkabout. It's too early for either to know where each is headed, but one gravitates toward the light, the other toward mystery and darkness.
As the carnival arrives, under the care of a perfectly cast Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark of Dark's Pandemonium Carnival, and the boys watch, beginning to understand that the carnival has strange powers, and it's offering to grant people their desires, secret or otherwise. Of course, it's a monkey's paw arrangement - a twisted version of the wish is granted and those bestowed need to join the Carnival, becoming one of The Autumn People.
If I bemoaned Return to Oz as unintentional horror, this film is ight horror for kids. There's consequences for actions, and paths out, but people they know suffer terrible fates. Jim's mother is almost seduced by the carnival. Will's father is tortured. The boys are hunted. And, most importantly for kid's horror - they become exposed to the tragedies of the adult world.
But, as I say - the movie has a hard time deciding what it is or who it's for. It has the feel of a movie older than it is, sometimes feeling like the direction is from a decade or two prior - with almost a television movie feel to it. The effects are minimal and I understand some scenes that didn't work were simply scrapped in favor of more practical effects (which led to reshoots when the boys are visibly older and wearing wigs). But Jason Robard's character's angle is something maybe kids can intellectualize, but has a completely different weight for an adult viewer - and that could be sophistication, but here it just makes it feel like the movie is oscillating toward different audiences. We don't get Aunty Em sitting down and having a deep talk with Dorothy about her regret about taking her in and how this is how Dorothy must live, in the Dust Bowl.
As a nostalgia film, SWTWC manages a folksy and post-card-esque vibe, like a Norman Rockwell painting - something I quite like. In the 1980's, we were maybe still close enough to the 1930's for the story to feel like something in the imaginary idyllic days, making the invasion of dark forces all the more insidious.
As I said at the outset, the themes are adult in nature, and I don't know that kids can't or shouldn't watch it, but the wall between Will Holloway and the goings on with the adults around him would exist for many younger viewers. But as a horror film - look. I love Halloween and whatnot, and I do think you can do some dissection of the films as a good little film student. But some of that insight via criticism is examining incidental and subtextual content, and that's not wrong. But. At the end of the day, I'll also take a good story that acts as fable - the horror isn't just "oh, shit, dude has a knife!" but the multi-layered threat of temptation, of our own worst weaknesses, of what lives in the human mind turned against us. It's maybe harder for the brain to do the work to apply that horror than it is to worry about strange people breaking in and stabbing you, but it's maybe something more relevant?
Also - it has Pam Grier, so how bad can it be?