Directed by Jack Clayton
Written by Ray Bradbury
Starring Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Pam Grier, Diane Ladd
Both before and after watching it, I’m stymied by Something Wicked This Way Comes. During our podcast with The AV Club’s Zack Handlen, Mike asked me why I chose this movie to discuss now as opposed to years down the line, and whether or not I felt like this was a “Disney” movie. I’ve talked in this column before about what that latter concept even means. What makes a Disney movie “Disney”? If there is some immutable formula, or a series of ingredients that need to appear, then you may have to look hard for how they show up in Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t know that the ingredients are totally absent, but if you look at the film’s plot synopsis by itself, you may be understandably baffled.
At some point in the 20th century (I said closer to the turn of that century, but Mike thought it was right around the Great Depression), two best friends face off against the evil proprietor of a traveling carnival that’s luring the innocent adult denizens of the town inside, transforming them and sucking the life out of the tiny hamlet. Are the two boys strong enough to withstand the machinations of Mr. Dark and his cronies, or will they too be tempted by the ability to stay young, or to have some long-held fantasy become reality? This is the basic concept of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the novel that formed the basis for the 1983 Disney movie, which he wrote. (John Mortimer is said to have done an uncredited rewrite on the film, after Bradbury was nudged out of the film’s production for a period.) And Bradbury was connected to the Walt Disney Company in various ways; right around the same time as this film, he was instrumental in helping EPCOT Center (now called just Epcot) to fruition, writing some of the narration to the original Spaceship Earth attraction. Bradbury may have seemed like the flip side to Walt Disney, the slightly creepier relative, the one who told you ghost stories around the campfire, but the parallels are there.
And the parallels are evident in Something Wicked This Way Comes, so it’s not terribly hard to see why this would fit under the Disney umbrella. Inherently good characters, typically younger ones, facing off inexplicable forces of terror and evil are at the heart of many Disney stories, though they may manifest in different ways. In the same way that you can see how this movie fits as something Disney would produce, you can see how the original story inspired Stephen King. How many of his stories play on similar themes? Regarding choosing the film for the show, obviously, it helps that we’re about to face another Halloween. (Yes, I say “face,” because though I like the fall and winter seasons, as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’m not a big fan of Halloween. Where I find other holidays around this time of year charming and brimming with good spirit, I find Halloween obnoxious and frustrating.) But more to the point, I wanted to watch Something Wicked This Way Comes. I haven’t seen all of the films from the Walt Disney Company—frankly, I think it’s safe to say that few people have, if any exist—but one of the goals of this show is to help me get closer to that plateau.
Most people probably wouldn’t qualify watching Disney movies as constituting a form of film education, but I do. It is, of course, foolish to assume that going to film school makes you more knowledgeable about cinema, just as it’s foolish to assume that once you graduate from film school, you’re done learning. What you can learn from the medium isn’t specific to a genre, a period, or a director. I’d argue that you can get more from the vast world of film as long as you’re curious. It was such curiosity that encouraged me to place Something Wicked This Way Comes high on the calendar. A Disney movie that’s a horror film? A Disney movie that’s a Ray Bradbury adaptation? A Disney movie starring Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce? Yeah, sign me up for that, posthaste.
And yet, the final product just doesn’t work very well. I’m not sure what Bradbury’s original script looked like, but the uncredited rewrite from someone else coupled with him being brought back near the end of the production to insert some narrative bookends makes it clear that this is not the result of a single cinematic vision. Now, granted, I get the feeling that as soon as this became a Disney movie, a single vision went out the window. I haven’t read the book yet—I really want to now—but I would not be surprised to learn that it’s darker, scarier, and more adult than the movie. How could it not be? The themes on display, the basic concept of adults wishing to be younger while the youth wish they could be older, are heady and heavy. The execution from director Jack Clayton—who also directed the 1970s-era version of The Great Gatsby—is flat and forced. The movie has some legitimately great moments, moments that made me think, “Hey, this scene is part of an awesome movie. Why doesn’t that movie exist?” But it’s thanks to a triumph of casting, nothing more.
Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce aren’t just very good actors, as we mentioned on the show, they’re not exactly family-film performers. (Yes, I am aware that Pryce was a recurring character in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but all of those films are a) rated PG-13 and b) definitely not for younger kids, especially the second and third films.) Pryce was at the beginning of his long, if not always memorable career; for many people, his most memorable film role would come soon after his sterling work in Something Wicked This Way Comes, as the hapless and not-very-dynamic lead of Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi masterpiece. Robards still had about 15 years in his filmography before he passed away; the dichotomy of youth versus aging is set up well enough between these two men, once they’re actually in the same scene together. While they do share two high points, one outside of a bar and one in the library where Robards’ character works, it takes way, way too long to get Robards’ paternal Mr. Halloway and Pryce’s malevolent Mr. Dark to match wits.
I so often harp on the running time for the movies we discuss, and this one’s no different. I find it hard to believe this movie wouldn’t be better if it wasn’t longer by about 20 or 30 minutes. It takes a good half-hour out of this movie’s 96 minutes to meet Mr. Dark, even though the carnival itself arrives a bit earlier. Waiting that long to reveal the sinister villain isn’t automatically a bad idea, but frankly, until Mr. Dark meets Mr. Halloway, he doesn’t seem that formidable. We know he’s creepy, certainly; however, his presence doesn’t become truly vicious or frightening until he’s placed against an opposing force, someone of pure good. You’d think the two kids who play Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade would fit the bill, the most innocent of children against a dark, mature, evil person. And as much as I brought this up on the show, it’s worth pointing out that the kids in this movie, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson, aren’t good as Will and Jim. But the script doesn’t do much in the way of helping them out. I’d argue that we know Will and Jim are close friends not because of their interactions, but because…well, they’re two kids who are the same age, and of course they’re friends, why wouldn’t they be?
And then there are the special effects. Going back and revisiting a film from 30 years ago means you have to recalibrate your mind if you want the experience to work as well as possible. Special effects in 1983 were just a lot hokier, a lot less polished than they are now. That goes for any film, up to and including a big-budget blockbuster like Return of the Jedi. (Of course, thanks to George Lucas, you’d never know what the old effects looked like. As a kid, I never had any serious issues with thinking the more dated effects looked too obvious, too crappy, too chintzy, whatever.) And even as an adult, I can forgive a lot of chintzy special effects. But I couldn’t here. The effects aren’t just date, they’re laughable and deliberately fake. It’s one thing to create something to the best of your abilities and come up short; it’s something else to call attention to how bad your movie looks.
Something Wicked This Way Comes isn’t, on the whole, a bad movie, it just has a lot of bad elements within. Maybe if Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce weren’t involved, the film would be a wash. Thankfully, we have these two consummate pros to guide the audience through the murky, messy waters of this Ray Bradbury tale. I get the feeling that the book is better, more coheisve, more coherent; I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s the case. But the movie that it spawned may have its heart in the right place, despite being too scattered to have any serious frightening or emotional impact.