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Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s novel The Witches, the sinister tale of a coven of toeless conjurers who despise youngsters (to them, kids smell like dog poo) and plot to turn them into mice, twice has been made into a movie.
The latest, from director Robert Zemeckis and starring Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, will stream Oct. 22 on HBO Max. (It was pulled from Warner Bros.’ theatrical release calendar due to COVID-19.) But the original, which starred Anjelica Huston as the sorceress in chief, came out 30 years ago and still manages to induce nightmares.
Jim Henson, who despite rising to fame with The Muppets always harbored a taste for the macabre, bought the film rights to the book shortly after publication, convinced that its witch transformations and anthropomorphic mice were perfect challenges for his Creature Shop. He chose not to direct, hiring English auteur Nicolas Roeg (1971’s Walkabout) instead.
Roeg had never helmed a kids film, and his approach was far from cuddly. He applied the visual language of horror cinema, with handheld camera techniques, extreme close-ups and “Dutch tilts” (shooting at a 45-degree angle) to render his witches even more terrifying.
The makeup was gruesome, too; Huston’s prosthetics — she rips off her human guise to reveal a pointed beak, hairy chin and bony clavicle — took six hours to apply and another six to remove. When Dahl saw the final cut, he fired off a letter to Henson, decrying the “vulgarity, the bad taste and the actual terror displayed” onscreen and threatened a boycott.
“I hope you will forgive us for falling short of your expectations,” Henson responded diplomatically, but he changed not a frame.
Released Aug. 24, 1990, in the U.S., the film was a bomb (it grossed $10 million, or $20 million in 2020 dollars) but has gained a cult following.
Henson never saw it open: He died at age 54 on May 16 of bacterial pneumonia; Dahl, 74, died six months later of a rare blood cancer.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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