This is it. The last update on Bemused and Nonplussed for the October Horror Movie Challenge this year. I still have a couple more entries over at Dreams In The Bitch House to complete, and then the theater goes dark for another year. Not to worry, there’ll still be regularly scheduled mayhem here, and perhaps a few posts over there, too, not to mention writing for Cult Reviews. As far as long-form write-ups go for the Challenge, the final entry goes to Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a perfectly autumnal film if there ever was one.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983)
Director: Jack Clayton
Stars: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson
Country: United States
In tiny Green Town, Illinois, autumn has settled in. The arrival of a lightning rod salesman piques the interest of two young boys, Will Halloway (Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Carson). Will and Jim have been lifelong friends, born minutes apart from each other, despite being something like polar opposites. Will is fair-haired and sweet-natured, where Jim is dark and rebellious – he takes the salesman up on his offer without asking his mother. Late that night, as the boys attach the lightning rod to the chimney on Jim’s house, they catch a flyer for a traveling circus that’s coming to town. It’s strange, because circus season ended over a month ago…
There are few films that really capture the total feeling of fall: Trick ‘r Treat is one that gets close, but it’s kind of a cheat, because it’s set on Halloween night. John Carpenter’s Halloween almost gets it, but look closely at the trees, and you’ll see that, for being set in another Illinois town in late October, they sure do look green. The Exorcist might be another, if mostly for that scene where Ellen Burstyn walks along the Georgetown streets, leaves swirling about her. But none of these directly address the turn of time in the same way as Something Wicked This Way Comes. Throw a bunch of dead leaves into the camera frame as much as you want, but really you’re just dressing the set.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is unique among horror films for several reasons. Primarily, it’s a Disney film, in a time when Disney was trying to move away from family pictures and animation. It’s also less concerned with supernatural scares (although it does have a few) than it is with the terror of growing old, or being unhappy with your life. The adults of Green Town are as much dreamers as the children. At its core, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a riff on “The Monkey’s Paw,” with its message of being careful what you wish for. Yes, it might be nice to be young and beautiful again, but the price you pay is blindness. What good is it when you can’t enjoy it?
There’s also a great undercurrent of regret in Green Town, most of all when it comes to Will’s father Charles (Robards). A fairly significant age gap separates father and son here, and Charles often wishes that he were younger so he could connect more with Will. He’s afraid of dying, as so many are, but more afraid that his son just sees him as an old relic. So when Mr. Dark (Pryce, in an early role) brings his carnival to town to feed on all these fears, Charles sees this as an opportunity to save Will and Jim from the lure of the “autumn people,” to become a hero to his boy.
The way the film reaches its conclusion is also different from a lot of other horror films. Instead of beating the villains with brute force, or pitchforks and torches, or physical weapons, our heroes defeat them with laughter. Kill them with kindness, as the old saying goes, and here, happiness is the strongest weapon of all. The good in people will prevail over darkness, as hokey as it seems. That the film doesn’t become treacly in sending this message is a joy and wonder. It’s bittersweet above all.
Something Wicked This Way Comes boasts a wonderful screenplay by Ray Bradbury, based on his book of the same name, a creepy James Horner score, and a superb cast – Robards and Pryce play well off each other, as opposite as young Will and Jim are. The supporting cast is equally wonderful, with familiar faces like Diane Ladd, Royal Dano, and Pam Grier as the Dust Witch, who was chosen to be in the film by Bradbury himself because he found her so beautiful in her previous film work.
Unfortunately, Something Wicked This Way Comes was a failure at the box office, making less than half its budget back at the box office. It has picked up some steam as a cult classic, occasionally popping up here and there on best-of lists, but it still maintains status as an under-the-radar film, waiting to be discovered. If you’ve yet to see it, waste no more time. It may not be October any more, but it’s still autumn and the carnival is waiting for you.