31 Days to Scare ~ Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a small American town, a diabolical circus and its demonic proprietor prey on the townsfolk.
Stars: Jason Robards, Diane Ladd, Jonathan Pryce, Royal Dano, Pam Grier, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson, Ellen Geer
Director: Jack Clayton
Rated: PG
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: This week in my neck of the woods, the weather changed sharply from irritating heat to a biting chill, and you could finally tell that autumn was knocking on our door. If I wasn’t ready to start my scary movie watching yet, the temperatures outside encouraged me to stay indoors and keep warm. In October, I try to think about the spooky movies I’d seen when I was younger that had an impact and give them another look to see if they still measure up. Some have maintained their delightful frights, while others have shown that the mind can nurture a memory with care, and you risk losing hold of something fond if you circle back to it. Basically…proceed with caution lest you be disappointed.

The VHS box for Something Wicked This Way Comes (which used the poster art above) will remain forever emblazoned in my mind because it seemed so out of place in the kid’s section of the video store. A scary-looking cover in the middle of a pile of animated and live-action family fare was an oddity, even with it carrying a PG rating and being released under Walt Disney Productions. The film was a staple of the early days of The Disney Channel, so I had the opportunity to watch it often as I grew up, but it had been a good two decades since I’d seen any part of it.

Life is peaceful in Green Town, Illinois. For Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and his best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), their biggest worry is being reprimanded by their grumpy school marm or caught out of bed at night on the roof of one of their adjoining houses. In late October, a carnival arrives and brings with it a frightening magic that eventually tears the townspeople apart. Presided over by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce, Woman in Gold), the circus has several unique attractions that present the residents desperate for unspoken wishes the opportunity to have their lives changed…for a costly fee. Only Jim and Will can evade Mr. Dark and his carny cronies, bringing their fears back to Will’s dad (Jason Robards, Parenthood), who is dealing with his own crisis that can’t be wished away. Will they all succumb to Mr. Dark’s tantalizing proposition, or can they send this malevolent hunger back from where it came from?

I’ve done enough reading about Disney and its stable of films since then to know about Something Wicked This Way Comes and its troubled production. Like their previous “scary” movie, The Watcher in the Woods released in 1980, the adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel had an infamously difficult journey to the big screen, bouncing around studios and stars (initially set up at Paramount with Kirk Douglas) before landing at Walt Disney Productions with a big budget and high expectations. When the film finally completed principal photography, it was delayed almost a year when the studio and the filmmakers disagreed on its tone. Reshoots and some rough reassembly gave the film an inconsistent feel, and with the boys getting taller between the end of filming and the reshoot, they grow and shrink several feet from one scene to the next. 

The result is a film that starts with great promise and the best intentions but quickly loses its edge and path forward. Even though it’s clearly filmed on the backlot of the Disney studios by director Jack Clayton (The Innocents), the look has a homespun quality that makes it feel like a black-and-white movie in color. You can almost tell when the studio starts to get involved and change the direction because the plot becomes virtually incomprehensible, and whole characters vanish or appear without introduction. The editing is a mess, and the continuity from one scene to another is often non-existent. It’s as if both sides were working so hard to make their version of the movie that, in the end, they gave up on making anything of quality at all. That imbalance in the force also seeps into the performances, with Robards coming off like a dreadful over-actor and actors like Pam Grier (Pet Sematary: Bloodlines) and Diane Ladd (Joy) getting lost altogether. The saving grace is Pryce, who chews the scenery like a slice of chocolate cake.

In this age of remakes and reboots, I can’t imagine why some filmmakers (like Mike Flanagan) haven’t looked at Bradbury’s original story and given another go at Something Wicked This Way Comes. Its themes of finding the balance between right and wrong within us and battling back evil with good are universal. However, the plot is eerily similar to what Stephen King riffed on in his 1991 novel Needful Things (and a 1993 film adaptation also ran into trouble during production…go figure) that was a far more violent and cruel story being told. Something Wicked This Way Comes would lend itself well to a completely new vision, restoring it to what Bradbury had initially written.

Where to watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

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