Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
As mentioned in a previous column, in the late ’70s and early ’80s Disney tried to establish itself outside of the animation and kid-friendly genres. Another movie that tried to appeal to a slightly older audience as part of these efforts was 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury and shot from a script initially written by Bradbury himself, the film follows two young friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, as a sinister traveling carnival comes to town. They end up battling the evil carnival owner, Mr. Dark, enlisting the help of Will’s father. There’s a lot more to the film than the standard good-versus-evil plot: a merry-go-round that ages or de-ages riders, a fun house that grants people’s wishes (with bad side effects, of course), and a witch—played by an almost unrecognizable Pam Grier—who can assume different guises and is host to a lot of tarantulas.
Even though the bulk of the film focuses on the two boys, it is really the story of Will’s father, Charles (ably played by Jason Robards), who feels he is too old to be the father that his son needs. Since the majority of the action takes place from the kids’ vantage point, there’s not a lot of backstory devoted to this, but it is a driving plot point. In the novel, the boys are 13, but in the film they come across as a little younger; Charles is 54 in the book but indeterminate in the film. However, I think Robards has always appeared older than his years. He has a great hangdog look that makes you feel like he has seen things that shouldn’t be seen.
Also of acting note, Jonathan Pryce (whose most recent work is as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones) plays the enigmatic Mr. Dark. It’s one of his earlier screen roles, before his big breakout in Brazil, and Pryce’s role is to be menacing—which he achieves with a haughty look, all-black clothing, and an on-point beard. There’s a great moment when he’s taking years away from Charles’s life by slowly ripping them out of a book. With gleeful evil relish, a glowing special effect, and a distinct musical cue, it’s a wonderfully done scene that shows the pure menace of Dark and what he’s truly capable of if left unchecked.
While one of the main thrusts of the plot is Charles coming to terms with his age and mortality, the overall feel of the film is one of a half-remembered memory from childhood. It is known that Bradbury focused on his own childhood while writing the more normal portions of the novel, which would place the film sometime in the mid-1930s to early 1940s if it were meant to take place at the same time. It definitely has an air of nostalgia to it—the sense of an innocence that we can never get back. With World War I over and World War II on the horizon, our country would never be the same. A loose allegory could be made with Will and Jim’s journey into adulthood, Jim racing into it and Will hesitantly holding back, both of them knowing that changes will inevitably happen. Jim excited for them and Will wanting to keep their friendship and life the way they are.
The film was competently directed by Jack Clayton, but Disney didn’t like his original cut and ended up reshooting, rescoring, and reediting a number of scenes, making it hard to determine what parts are truly the director’s input and what parts are the studio’s. If you compare Something Wicked to some of Clayton’s previous films, such as 1974’s The Great Gatsby and 1961’s The Innocents, the finished product does feel a little watered down, but I think the majority of the film is still his, and it adheres to the soul of Bradbury’s original novel.
On a side note, if you think Terry Gilliam has it bad with getting films made in Hollywood, do a little research on Clayton’s failed projects. A talented director who didn’t quite know how to deal with the Hollywood landscape.
Because of this tinkering and promoters not knowing how to market the film properly, it did not do well at the box office. In fairness, I think today it would still be a hard film to market to the masses: it’s not quite a kid’s film but also not quite an adult film. Not quite horror, but not a comedy, and not quite a drama. It falls somewhere in between a memory and a dream. But if you’re feeling nostalgic for childhood it’s a great fit, and it would also make a great double feature with Stand By Me.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable on Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.