Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Vidal Peterson, Shawan Carson, Diane Ladd. Jason Robards
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

When I say the words "Disney horror movie", what do you think of? "Flubber?" "My Favorite Martian?" Well, in the early 80s, Disney tried its hand at horror films with "Something Wicked This Way Comes", based on the famous novel by Ray Bradbury. Disney also released another horror film, 1980’s "Watcher in the Woods", which Anchor Bay will also releasing on DVD soon. Most didn’t know what to make of the film, as it was too eerie for small children and too tame for the horror crowds (remember, this was the height of the "slasher" craze), so the film was overlooked by most. Now, Anchor Bay has brought "Something Wicked This Way Comes" to DVD, so that its magic and wonder can now be rediscovered.

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" deals with childhood and innocence lost. The story is set in the 1930s or 40s (it never specifies) and focuses on Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawan Carson), two young boys who live in the quaint village of Green Town, Illinois. Will and Jim are your average pre-adolescents, bursting with imagination and a thirst for adventure. Jim lives with his mother (Diane Ladd), who is too busy with gentleman callers to pay much attention to Jim. Will’s father, Charles (Jason Robards), is the town’s librarian and feels that he is too old to be a good father to Will. As the film opens, we are introduced to the people in the village — the barber who fancies women, the teacher who was once a beauty, the ex-football star who is now an amputee — and learn that many of these characters feel that something is missing from their lives.

One night, a carnival arrives in town by train. Will and Jim sneak out to witness its arrival and think that they see that carnival set up in a matter of seconds. Did that really happen? The carnival’s leader is Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), a handsome and manipulative man who promises the people of the town a good time and much more. Soon, some of the villagers are missing and Will and Jim begin to suspect that something is afoul at the carnival. As they begin to investigate, Mr. Dark becomes aware of their snooping and sets out to stop them. Soon, the battle lines are drawn, not only between the boys and Mr. Dark, but between Mr. Dark and Charles Halloway, who must face his fears and self-doubt and prove that he is a good father.

As mentioned earlier, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is based on the novel of the same name by Ray Bradbury, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. While he hasn’t been able to cram the breadth and scope of his novel into the movie, Bradbury was able to capture the essence of the book — not only the moralistic tale that you should be careful what you wish for, but also the subplots dealing with the relationship between Will and his father. On the surface, the film appears to be a dark-fantasy tale about an evil stranger who comes to town to grant the darkest wishes of the occupants of Green Town. But, the real stranger in the film is Charles Halloway. Due to the fact that he is older and that he once let Will down – it’s explained in the film – he feels alienated from his son. The film isn’t so much about Mr. Dark trying to find the boys, as it is about Charles having to find his purpose in life. Mr. Dark acts as the catalyst that forces Charles to take a look at himself and decide what it means to be a father.

The idea of people getting their comeuppance by way of their greatest fantasy is played subtly here and predates recent attempts like "The Wishmaster" by forty years. As the film has to put a whole novel into 94 minutes, it doesn’t spend a lot of time pandering to the audience and explaining things. This may not be good for a film that was supposedly aimed at children, but it gives the film a nice pace. We meet the characters at the beginning and we see the end results of their visit to the carnival and no further explanation is given (or needed, really). If Jason Robards had looked into the camera and said, "Wait a minute. All Ed wanted was his arm and leg back so that he could play football and to get that he had to pay the ultimate price…" it would have blown the pacing of the film. (Incidentally, the scene where Robards sees what has become of Ed is truly creepy, without being overindulgent.)

Director Jack Clayton gives the film a nice look and feel and handles the heavy subject matter very well. Clayton became famous for his subtle hand and it works well here. The film eschews any on-screen violence for mood and suspense. (There is a scene where Mr. Dark injures Chales Halloway and it’s obvious that a gory shot was cut). As the boys learn more about the carnival and we begin to fear for their safety, the film’s pace begins to quicken. There isn’t a lot of overt action, but the viewer can feel the film begin to gain momentum as the characters move forward to the exciting conclusion. The film has some special effects sequences, most involving opticals or "live" effects. It’s surprising how these effects that could be considered primitive by today’s standards, still work well after all this time.

Robards gives his typical fine performance as Charles Halloway. He plays the part in a very low-key manner, as we see a man who doesn’t really know himself. Jonathan Pryce is outstanding as Mr. Dark, his (I hate to say it) dark features and hypnotic voice making him perfect for the role. His confrontation with Charles shows that Pryce is a master of playing the "coiled spring." (A character who acts cool for most of the film and then suddenly explodes.) The two young actors, Peterson and Carson, definitely have the right look for the film, but there act times when their facial expressions don’t really convey the sense of horror that you know they should be feeling.

Anchor Bay has brought "Something Wicked This Way Comes" to DVD with a <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc that offers the viewer the choice of either the full-frame version or the <$PS,letterboxed> format. The film has a 1.66:1 aspect ratio on this DVD, which seems to be its original ratio, especially considering that most Disney films from this period were shot at that ratio, despite that fact that a few sources claim it should be 1.85:1. The formatting on the disc looks fine and there is no feeling that any visual information is being lost at the top & bottom or the sides.

The picture is clear, showing only minor defects on the source print (mainly during the titles and the "mirror maze" sequence). The film was shot with many dark tones and subtle hues, and these come across very nicely on DVD. The night shots aren’t too dark and show just the right amount of detail. The DVD does show some artifacting during the sequences, which contain optical effects.

The soundtrack on the DVD is <$DD,Dolby Digital> 4.0 (is that for real?). The sound is very effective in adding to the mood of the film and I was surprised by the action in the rear speakers. (After some experimenting, I found that the sound was at its best when my Dolby Digital decoder was set on the 2-channel setting. The 5.1 setting didn’t have as much "oomph!")

The only extra on the DVD is the theatrical trailer for the film, which is presented at a 1.66:1 ratio, except for the title, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 (adding to the letterboxing mystery). The trailer runs at nearly three minutes and gives away a lot of the movie. One disappointing note – the Disney laserdisc featured an audio-commentary by Bradbury, which would have made a fine addition to this DVD.

When viewed today, it’s still obvious why "Something Wicked This Way Comes" never found its niche. The scares make it inappropriate for anyone under age 10 and hardcore horror fans would most likely find it dull and boring. But don’t let the horror label scare you off. While the film is full of creepy and sometimes disturbing images, it also deals with the magic and wonder of childhood and the dynamics that parents and children share. In short, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is one of those rare multi-leveled films that can offer something for everyone.