RE:View Something Wicked This Way Comes
“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
That fantastic line is the opener for Ray Bradbury’s classic boys’ horror story Something Wicked This Way Comes. And it is one of the few parts of the story that Disney got right.
There are plenty of critics of this movie whose entire criticism is based on its, admittedly, sub-par interpretation of the story.
When I first saw the movie, I hadn’t read the book yet, so my own first impression was a fairly positive one. I have gone back and forth with this movie throughout the course of my own life. Sometimes liking it more, sometimes less depending on what new information I blundered across.
The problems this film adaptation has doesn’t stem from the usual base issue of “Well, it was never intended to be a movie, it simply can’t translate well to the screen.” Something Wicked This Way Comes started life as a screenplay.
Gene Kelly wanted to work with Bradbury. Yes, this dark fantasy was supposed to be a Gene Kelly movie. Bradbury was stoked by the prospect of working with a Hollywood legend and a circus-themed treatment was decided. He dug through his filing cabinet and found Black Ferris.
It was a short story about a sinister traveling circus that had a Ferris wheel that aged people if it went one direction and made them younger if it went the other. Two young boys discover the truth and are pursued by the sinister owner. The boys eventually trap him on the wheel and age him to death.
Gene Kelly absolutely loved it. The studios on the other hand did not. They had no idea why Kelly wanted to do this weird Rod Serling crap but none of them were going to blow money on it.
Bradbury sighed in resignation when Kelly basically told him, “That’s Hollywood.” And turned his screenplay into one of the Green Town Trilogy of books.
Fast forward a few years and the house that Walt Disney built was in trouble on about every front. A lot of this was the fault of the corporate culture that Walt Disney had fostered. He kept his people on the same program, which is to say his program. Walt did not suffer dissenting opinions gladly. He would always be willing to hear you out and appeared to take the criticism in stride and sometimes he genuinely did. Other times he appeared to stew for a while and decide the critic didn’t really fit in with the Disney family anymore.
This created a very, very passive-aggressive corporate culture. There was no chair-throwing at Disney but there was a lot of regimentation and Machiavellian backstabbing. It’s still that way at Disney. Recent example, Bob Iger went to the Cannes premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny as a show of support for Kathleen Kennedy. He had never been there in his 35 years at the company so that was a bad sign for her. She was informed going into the theater that Willow had been pulled from Disney+ and would be banished to the Iron Vault of Tax Write-Offs forever, then told when she came out that the Star Wars LARP hotel would be shut down in September. Everyone at Disney assumed she was done.
That is how they do business there and it’s how they’ve always done business.
Anyway, Ron Miller knew he had a creativity problem and was trying to get a handle on it. The biggest problem he had were Walt’s old hands who were constantly asking, “Is this what Walt would want?” Constantly pushing gently in the wrong direction. It created serious headwinds against genuine creativity. Upcoming key talents like Don Bluth and Jon Lassetter ended up leaving the company because of it.
Nonetheless, Miller pushed forward on projects that were brave for Disney but ultimately failed at the box office.
The Black Hole, Tron, The Watcher in the Woods, The Black Cauldron, Return to Oz, and Dragonslayer were all part of Disney’s Daring But Deadly phase. They all had something going for them but that something was never box office returns.
Something Wicked is one of them.
After Gene Kelly’s version failed, Kirk Douglas picked up the rights, he would star while his son Peter Douglas would produce. This Paramount version also fell apart. When Disney picked up the rights the Douglas family was still attached although Peter was the only active participant, Kirk had an empty producer credit. Ray Bradbury was consulted and he recommended experienced Hollywood hand Jack Clayton to direct.
The boys auditioning for Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade looked the part or to be exact looked like the part the other boy should be playing. So they were switched around with both Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson having to dye their hair blond and black respectively.
The original Green Town story was set in the early sixties, there were still a few small circuses running around back then. By the early eighties, they were all gone, so Bradbury made the decision to set it in the 1930s when he was a boy. Good call, it works much better as a period piece.
When the movie opens the first character we see is Tom Fury who appears to be a crazy bum in this movie but in the book was obviously a hedge wizard. This is where fans of the book start getting annoyed with the movie.
We are introduced to the boys and their seemingly idyllic village of Green Town, Illinois. We meet the folks who live there, and who appear to be content with their lot in life. Each has unfulfilled desires, which as luck would have it neatly correspond to one of the seven deadly sins. The cigar store owner Mister Tetley dreams of money. The town’s teacher Miss Foley is now a crone and pines for the days when she was the most beautiful girl in town. The Italian barber Mister Crosetti lusts for exotic women he will never see much less lay his hands on. And Will’s father, the town librarian is devoured by his regret.
The first character we see is Tom Fury who appears to be a crazy bum in this movie but in the book was obviously a hedge wizard.
Character introductions made, we see a man dressed in black wearing a top hat walking down Main Street throwing fliers into the air advertising the coming of Mister Dark’s Pandamonium Carnival. Ray Bradbury was pushing for Peter O’Toole, and when Disney said, ‘Forget it, too expensive for this’ he downgraded to Christopher Lee. I think either would have done a good job but in this case, Disney made the right call by going with a relative unknown named Jonathon Pryce. The younger man was hungry and threw himself into the role, he did a fantastic job playing the devil.
The boys see the train entering town, Jack Clayton earned his paycheck here. It was this wonderfully terrible ghost train, all of the cars seem empty except for a funeral car, the puffing, chugging steam engine’s whistle screams when it’s blown.
It’s a good scene, oily, spidery, tingly, and sends delightful shivers.
However, Clayton nearly blew it by taking things too far. There was an early CG and animation combination of effects that showed the train coming apart and then reassembling itself into the carnival. Cool, but it would have wrecked the tone of the movie. The boys were supposed to be witnessing all of it, which means they would have had no doubts about the carnival’s supernatural origin. This would have been a huge mistake, when you are doing horror you need to have a period of extended tension building. More so than any other genre. Half the fear comes from the uncertainty and that needs to be built up slowly.
Which it did for a bit. Will and Jim know there is something up and do a sneak and peak when the carnival opens. The barber, Crosetti is getting his palm read by the Dust Witch.
Crosetti was almost certainly supposed to be an actual Italian barber, which was certainly common enough in the 1930s. The problem was that being an Italian who was over-fixated on wooing the ladies would have been an ethnic slur by the early eighties, (the Mafia didn’t like being called names by then, you can’t make this shit up) which is why Crosetti almost but doesn’t quite scan as a character.
The Dust Witch on the other hand does scan and was played by Pam Grier. She had spent the 1970s bouncing around topless in various Blaxploitation pot boiler drive-in flicks. By the late seventies when she started making guest appearances on The Love Boat, you knew it was over. Then out of the blue, she suddenly started getting legitimate acting gigs, starting with this one. Her turn as the Dust Witch made Hollywood take a second look at her, no one loves a comeback story more than Tinsel Town. This was the movie where Pam Grier decided to prove to the world she could act. She brought the creepy to Green Town.
The Dust Witch combined with Mister Dark worked to bring both masculine and feminine evil to the story. Crosetti went to the carnival’s peep show, where he was brought up on stage and then surrounded by beautiful exotic women laying hands on him. There was no nudity but it was very risqué for a movie with the Disney brand name on it.
That was all the boys got to see but they knew something was up. The greedy cigar store owner, Tetley won a huge amount of cash at the carnival (which should have told him right there something was up) plus got a free ride on the Ferris wheel. Alas he was riding with the Dust Witch, who got off the Ferris Wheel alone when the ride was over.
Ed the bartender had been a college football star but somewhere along the line had lost his left arm and leg. He was too bound to his glory days. When Ed went to the funhouse he was promised the return of his limbs and he eagerly accepted. He was the most sympathetic of the townsfolk. He was played by James Stacy who had a very good TV career in the sixties and looked to be heading for the big time when his motorcycle was hit by a drunk driver and he became a double amputee. Despite this tragedy, he returned to acting and was still getting work into the 1990s.
The town school teacher had her beauty returned but then was struck blind.
The boys snuck back at night and found their worst boyhood nightmares come to life.
There was an unusually bloody scene for a Disney kid’s movie where Will Holloway sees his decapitated head in a basket.
The boys go into hiding and Mister Dark and his carnival literally parade through town looking for them. The boys see the fate of the townfolk who accepted Mister Dark’s bargains as the parade goes by. The barber who constantly lusted for women is now a bearded lady. The cigar store owner is now a (more or less wooden) Indian (not that poetic). The school teacher who had the source of her vanity restored was indeed beautiful, possibly forever, but will never be able to gaze upon the source of her vanity again. These bargains appeared to be true Faustian deals, when the carnival “left town,” we were given no reason to believe the townsfolk didn’t leave with them. As far as we can tell they remained employees of Mister Dark in perpetuity.
The boys meet with Will’s Dad in the library, he has discovered the secret of the Autumn People. Mister Dark arrives and offers Will’s Dad his youth back in exchange for the boys
Great scene by the way, Jason Robards killed it as the librarian who became a father very late in life and that life is filled with too many regrets.
Charles Halloway: I know who you are. You are the autumn people. Where do you come from? The dust. Where do you go to? The grave.
Mister Dark: Yes. We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well.
Charles Halloway: To stuff yourselves on other people’s nightmares.
Mister Dark: And butter our plain bread with delicious pain. So, you do understand a little.
Charles Halloway: You are known in this town. My father knew you.
Mister Dark: Your father? The preacher? That half-man?
Charles Halloway: He lived on goodness.
Mister Dark: Tasteless fare. Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.
That scene was well worth the price of admission.
Sadly, not many paid that price. Something Wicked This Way Comes made back barely half its production budget.
Dark finds the boys and drags them to his carnival. Halloway pursues them. The end is slightly deus ex machina, Charles finds his son in a house of mirrors and literally breaks through memories of his regrets to save him. Then God destroys the Carnival. A gigantic, world ending lightning storm begins blasting the tents which frees Tom Fury who kills the Dust Witch. Mister Dark is trapped on his merry-go-round time machine which ages him into a skeleton. The Carnival is sucked into the sky and then the narrator does a voiceover during the epilogue.
Disney was not at all happy with the results once the filming was complete. The original film score was thrown out. John Mortimer was brought in to do rewrites and nobody had seen fit to tell Ray Bradbury about this. Some major cuts were made and some major scenes were added. The tarantula scene was one of them. It created a continuity problem because the boys had visibly grown and hit puberty.
Disney basically defaulted to creating an easily accessible family film. They had signed on for Bradbury and Clayton’s vision, then signed off and aggressively edited it into a Disney movie that certainly did not satisfy fans of the book. Bradbury and Clayton fell out when Ray found out that Clayton had been the one to bring in Mortimer for the rewrites. Clayton was done when Disney hired another director to do the reshoots.
Lets be clear about something, Iger is currently its biggest problem to be sure but Disney has always been like this.
This movie has become something of a minor classic but Disney seems ashamed of it for some reason. It’s not buried as deeply as Song of the South but it is buried. There has never been a Blu-Ray release, you cannot buy a streaming license for it on Amazon or Apple TV, and it has never been on Disney Plus. That last is saying something, Disney has Island at the Top of the World on D+ but NOT Something Wicked This Way Comes?
So does the movie hold up?
Most definitely. It’s flawed and always has been but it is quite possibly more entertaining now than when it was first released.
Ray Bradbury himself eventually reconciled himself to the movie saying it was, “not a great film, no, but a decently nice one”
Who am I to disagree with Ray Bradbury about his own movie?
Last minute update: Tom Connor from Midnight’s Edge informs us that Something Wicked This Way Comes is now available on Blu-Ray but only from the Disney Movie Club.
Or in a month, Ebay.