In a small anywhere town in any state in America, two young boys- quiet Will Halloway and somewhat rebellious Jim Nightshade-enjoy the ever-shortening days of autumn.
When the boys hear about a strange traveling carnival from a lightning rod salesman, they decide to see what it is all about-but Will is fearful, as most carnivals end their tours after Labor Day. When the ominous Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man, rides into town on a dark midnight, setting up his massive carnival in a matter of seconds, the boys are both thrilled and terrified.
It seems to be just another carnival at first, but it is not before long that the forces of darkness themselves are manifesting from the haunting melodies of the carousel-which can change your age depending on which way you ride it-and the glaring Mirror Maze. With his collection of freaks and oddities, such as the Fat Man, Mr. Electro, and the blind Dust Witch, Dark intends to take control of the town and seize more innocent souls to damn.
It will take all the wit and hope of the two boys to save their families and friends, with aid from an unlikely ally-Will's father, the town librarian, who understands more than anyone else that "something wicked this way comes."
Jason Robards ... Charles Halloway
Jonathan Pryce ... Mr. Dark
Diane Ladd ... Mrs. Nightshade
Royal Dano ... Tom Fury
Vidal Peterson ... Will Halloway
Shawn Carson ... Jim Nightshade
Mary Grace Canfield ... Miss Foley
Richard Davalos ... Mr. Crosetti
Jake Dengel ... Mr. Tetley
Jack Dodson ... Dr. Douglas
Bruce M. Fischer ... Mr. Cooger
Ellen Geer ... Mrs. Halloway
Pam Grier ... Dust Witch
Brendan Klinger ... Cooger as a Child
It was almost too much to hope that someone would make a movie version of Ray Bradbury's outstanding fantasy novel 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' that did justice to it, but director Jack Clayton did. He and his cohorts managed to capture all the dark, ominous portents and mysterious, mystical happenings that fill Bradbury's book.
Set earlier in this century, a carnival comes to a small town at a strange time of year, October. But then it's a mighty strange carnival, one that fulfills the fantasies--and fears--of the town's residents. Two young boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade (Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson) find out the foreboding and forbidden secrets of the carnival, as does the tired, prematurely old man (Jason Robards) who is Will's father.
As has been noted, there probably isn't another film with the Walt Disney name on it that is as dark as this one. It may be too frightening in parts for very young children and too disturbing at times for slightly older ones. A person's enjoyment of the film would be helped considerably by reading the book beforehand, much like Kubrick's '2001...' Besides those already mentioned, some of the good performances in the movie come from Royal Dano, James Stacy, and Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark.
Two young boys (Vidal Peterson & Shawn Carson) notice the arrival of a carnival. Its owner (Jonathan Pryce) makes wishes for the town's citizens come true, but with horrifying results. Pryce knowing that the two boys know what is going on unbeknowest to the town sets about trying to hunt them down with the assistance of a dust witch (Pam Grier). However, if he is going to get the children he is going to have to go through the boy's father (Jason Robards).
Sure, it is predictable. However, it has excellent production design, original and creative special effects, and a thoughtful screenplay. Pryce turns in a scary performance. Robards captures that right balance of being brave, yet terrified. And Grier turns in a seductive, very mysterious performance that has a very commanding presence in the film even though she has very little screen time. Rather intense and scary film. The scene with Pryce ripping pages out of a book and Grier placing a spell on Robards are quite memorable.
There seems to be something about small Midwestern towns that sticks with the writers who have grown up in them, a sense of childhood idealism now lost. Ray Bradbury had it. So did Rod Serling and Harper Lee. (Okay, I'm defining the Midwest in such a way as to include New York state and the South. If there's "poetic license" and "artistic license," we can have "geographic license" too.) I don't know how Hemingway didn't "get it."
This movie does a much better job of translating Bradbuy's often lyrical but still commercial prose into a visual medium. The village atmosphere is effectively evoked. The script tells us that everyone knows everyone else. And two you boys are the kind of close friends you can only have when you're a twelve-year-old kid, secretly crawling across tree branches and roofs into each others' bedrooms and worrying that one is trying to "ditch" the other. These boys aren't interested in girls -- yet. Freud called this developmental phase "latent homosexuality" but he probably had it wrong. What we see is not inversion but a budding social solidarity, a loyalty to a still-small group. If these kids are gay then so is the U. S. Marine Corps.
Anyway, the acting by everyone concerned is splendid, with the possible exception of Jonathan Price. It isn't his performance at fault. It's just that I couldn't buy him as the demonic carnival owner. Maybe it was his hair do, which was like unto that of a Beverly Hills doctor specializing in diseases of the rich.
The photography, lighting, and art direction couldn't be improved upon. There are a couple of shots of Vermont but most of the scenes are indoors or on a Small Town, USA, set on the back lot. That's okay. Sets can be stylized to a degree that real small towns can't, and that's what's required in a spooky fantasy like this. The smallest details seem apt. Note, for instance, the exceedingly drab wallpaper in Miss Farley's house. Ugh. It's the kind that Oscar Wilde must have had to cope with when he cracked from his deathbed, "Either this wallpaper has to go or I do." And -- whew -- is Pamela Grier a knockout. And Jason Robards has one of his best roles. What a magnificent smoke-and-vodka cured voice he has. In profile his features seem so flat as to have been painted on the front of his face, but when we get a good look at them they're extremely expressive. He looks and acts like a guilt-ridden father, frightened of death.
I don't know why it doesn't all quite come together. The story seems less focused than it might be. Oh, we know the carnival is evil, right from the beginning, that spectacular shot of the locomotive from hell pounding camerawards. But then what? Episodes that are hard to fit into the main plot. A big guy gets on a merry-go-round which spins him backwards and turns him into a child who then pretends to be Miss Farley's nephew, Robert, and she goes along with it. Why? Miss Farley doesn't seem especially fond of him. Is this her secret dream which the carnival is bringing to realization? Maybe, but later while looking in the mirror, Miss Farley turns into a lovely young woman and then promptly goes blind. How many secret dreams does this babe have? And why is she (and the others) punished for the dissatisfaction she feels? What do the evildoers at the carnival GET out of it?
I've used Miss Farley as an example but there are others. Too many. The plot seems loose limbed and gangles a little. What does Jonathan Price care whether he catches the two boys or not? Nobody's going to believe their story. And the multitude of tarantulas is a kind of cheap scare for a movie full of wistful memories like this. Especially when the kids wake up from the dream and thrust their screaming faces into the lens.
It's still a good movie for the reasons I've given, and the characterizations are good too. I wound up feeling very sorry for Jason Robards who is facing the prospect of being cured of life, which Kierkegaard called "the disease of eternity." At the same time I do wish they hadn't impaled Pam Grier on that shard of glass or whatever it was. I wonder how Val Lewton would have handled all this.
* A special-effects sequence that took place at the beginning of the film was cut shortly before the movie hit the theaters. In this sequence, the carnival materializes from the smoke of the train - the smoke from the engine "becomes ropes and canvas tents. Tree limbs grow together to form a ferris wheel and a spider web mutates into a wheel of fortune." This sequence was the first time that computer animation was used to animate organic material, and it was combined with traditional animation. The scene was deemed not convincing enough and was cut from the film at the very last minute (according to an issue of "Twilight Zone Magazine" that was released the same month as the film, the scene was going to be in the final print).
* In the spider sequence, the boys are noticeably older, since the scene was re-shot after the rest of the production had been completed. This was used to replace a sequence with a large mechanical hand which, like the animated appearance of the carnival, was deemed too hokey and was subsequently cut from the film.
* Disney made many changes to the film that Ray Bradbury and director Jack Clayton did not intend. Many extra special effects scenes were shot, and other changes were made before its release. According to the laserdisc commentary by Bradbury, much of his original intentions for the movie were destroyed.
* In Anchor Bay's DVD, the end of the theatrical trailer (which shows the film's title) has been cropped. The rest of trailer is in 1.85:1, but that last shot is around 2.35:1, which has caused confusion among fans. This aspect ratio change in the trailer was done by Disney to mask off Disney/Buena Vista names. Disney did not allow its name anywhere on the DVD package.
* Steven Spielberg was considered to direct this movie.
* Ray Bradbury asked both David Lean and Steven Spielberg if they were interested in directing the film.
* "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes" is from "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, Scene IV, Act i, spoken by the second witch.
* The lines "And in despair I bowed my head / "There is no peace on earth," I said, / "For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men." / Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: / "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; / The wrong shall fail, the right prevail / With peace on earth, good will to men" is from "I heard The Bells On Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
* Stephen King wrote a rejected adaptation.
* Mechanical effects designer Isidoro Raponi built fake tarantulas to augment the 200 live ones used in the spider attack sequence.
* The music for the film was originally composed by Georges Delerue, but it was rejected by Disney for a less somber score, and was replaced by James Horner's more upbeat score. Portions of Delerue's score can be heard in the film's theatrical trailer.
* This was the last Disney movie to be released under the "Walt Disney Productions" banner. Later in 1983, the banner was replaced by "Walt Disney Pictures."
* Sam Peckinpah briefly flirted with the idea of filming Ray Bradbury's story but was unable to raise the necessary finance.
* After a poorly received test screening, Disney held back the release of the movie for a year to re-edit it, film additional and replacement scenes (including special effects sequences), add an opening narration, and hire James Horner to rewrite a completely new score, all of which added millions to the budget. It's quite obvious when watching the film which scenes, such as the spider attack and the mirror maze climax, were filmed a year after production had initially wrapped. Reportedly Bradbury and the film makers were not pleased with the studio's intervention nor the effects it had on the picture, which ended up being a flop when it was finally released in 1983 despite Disney's attempts to make it more audience friendly.