Something Wicked This Way Comes
Genre: Kids & Family
Runtime: 1 hr 40 min
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Jack Clayton
Starring: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano, Vidal Peterson
Almost a subversion of Disney norms.
Review by: ShaneBurridge
Added: 8 years ago
A failure or a success, depending on how you look at it: upon my first viewing, I opted for the former, upon the second I became more charitable. The problem, as apparent within its opening moments, is the marriage of the word WICKED with WALT DISNEY, which is not too promising a combination. First indications of SOMETHING WICKED were hopeful, with Ray Bradbury writing the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, and Jack Clayton brought on board to direct (with Bradbury's approval). A few years earlier Disney might have gotten away with it, but when the early 80s saw a revitalization of horror movies, and special effects were now the expected hook for big-budget films, WICKED didn't hold up. In the first place, its particular tone of horror was not in the same excesses of its contemporaries, and secondly, many of the animation effects sequences looked stale, added afterwards by nervous execs who could see the likes of Spielberg out-Disneying the studio at its own game.
Bradbury has never been the easiest writer to adapt to the screen - he wrote few novels in favor of short stories, and his lyrical style is better suited to the printed word than the filmed image (as uneven films like FAHRENHEIT 451 and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN demonstrate). WICKED draws upon two aspects prevalent throughout Bradbury's work: nostalgia and dread. In the case of the first, the small-town atmosphere is lovingly brought to life in the film's opening scenes and there's certainly no fault to be found with its widescreen visuals. Dread, however, is trickier to pull off, especially for audiences expecting their horror to be more of the seat-jumping variety. Since the Disney logo robs the film of any threat that would crank up the tension for horror fans, WICKED needs to be viewed as a different kind of film. In some ways, it’s almost a subversion of Disney norms - there's a visiting carnival, two young boys given the run of the town (Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson), and a homey setting populated with slightly dotty inhabitants on first-name terms - and by all accounts it's the type of place we'd expect to see Toby Tyler or Pollyanna ambling around the corner. Plucky though these and other previous Disney tykes may be, they would be over their heads in the town that Bradbury gives them - the villains are not the usual jewel thieves, smugglers or bank robbers, but supernatural figures that prey on human misery by building up hopes and then shattering them, leaving their victims as lifeless husks.
Jonathan Pryce cuts a fine figure as Mr. Dark, the owner of the visiting carnival, resisting the urge to play the role too theatrically (even though, as a carnival operator, he has the license to huckster things up). In the film's best scene, he confronts Jason Robards, the aging father of one of the boys, and rips pages out of a book as if they were potentially regained years being torn from his life. It's a welcome confrontation as it's one of the few times we see adult characters (i.e. experienced actors) playing against each other. Carson and Peterson hold their own by doing everything they're supposed to, reacting every way they should, and delivering Bradbury's dialogue without making it seem forced (it's probably second nature to Carson as he had already been spooked by a dark carnival in Tobe Hooper's horror flick THE FUNHOUSE). Still, perhaps they're a little too innocent, inheriting the Disney tradition, or curse, of all juveniles, and consequently incapable of recognizing real evil. They observe the grotesquery of the carnival with incomprehension, its backwards-spinning carousel with wonder, and in one scene, the bare midriffs of belly dancers with something a little more than boyish curiosity. Perhaps feeling that kids couldn't really be afraid of intangible horrors, the studio added a sequence where the boys are "attacked" by troops of spiders. Not surprisingly, it's the worst scene in the film. However, if Bradbury's novel had been made by any studio other than Disney, there undoubtedly would have been many such conventional 'fright' scenes. As it turns out, the rigors of the studio may have provided the film with the right amount of subtlety to make it more faithful to Bradbury, if not to horror fans of the 80s.