Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” remains one of my favorite literary experiences, an old friend I’m always happy to take off the shelf and revisit.
The richness in it is Bradbury’s understanding the great adventure and fear in childhood, as well as how vast possibilities and discoveries are countered with learning that people you grow up with and love will someday die.
I didn’t grow up in a town like the one Bradbury describes in his book, though I did have a childhood where I used to ride on my bike for hours, sometimes going to the very edges of town, finding myself in unfamiliar neighborhoods and encountering the kind of “strangers” my parents warned me about.
I had a lot of close calls.
Frankly, when I think back, I’m amazed I’m still alive. Only in the hindsight of adulthood am I only now fully aware of how much danger I used to get into.
Bradbury’s story, about a traveling carnival that bewitches an entire town, is vastly relatable in the way it uses fantasy and horror to explore the dangers and blissful moments of youth. Although Bradbury dedicated his novel to Gene Kelly and expected the legendary performer to star in a film version, it wound up not happening until the 1980s, when the property arrived at, of all places, The Walt Disney Company, during their weird phase.
After the death of Walt Disney in 1966 but before the Michael Eisner-led renaissance in the company’s animation and film legacy in the late 1980s, the company made some big swings, took chances on odd material and sought to connect with the zeitgeist outside of their usual formula as providers of family friendly entertainment.
The result was a collection of what-were-they-thinking flops, like the Margot Kidder comic thriller “Trenchcoat” (1983), an early comic book movie disaster “Condorman” (1981) and “The Devil and Max Devlin,” a 1981 comedy in which Satan is played by Bill Cosby (!).
Around this time, the company even made two dark and intense horror films: John Hough’s“The Watcher in the Woods” (1981) and Jack Clayton’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983), which both arrived wounded by extensive studio tinkering but still emerged as ripe nightmare fuel.
Although both were rated PG, they came with special parental warnings in their marketing material and traumatized kids who were unlucky enough to see them on the big screen or during a run on The Disney Channel.
While both have their admirable qualities, it goes without saying that “Disney Horror Movie” is the kind of oxymoron that never should have happened in the first place. A studio that already haunted millions of kids with “Bambi” and “Pinocchio” didn’t need to go out of their way to scare us (the exceptions are Matthew Robbins’ 1981 “Dragonslayer” and Walter Murch’s 1985 “Return to Oz,” both years-ahead-of-their-time, terrifying and terrific).
The first titles we see are “Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which appropriately bleeds onto the screen. Clayton then immerses us in warm tones, rolling hills with trees turning fall colors and Norman Rockwell-inspired imagery and figures.
Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) are bright eyed young boys who irritate their teacher and delight the older Mr. Halloway (Jason Robards), who oversees the town library. The distant sounds of a train arriving and the ominous sightings of a thin, well-dressed man promoting a carnival are the early indications that the safety and familiarity of small town is about to change forever.
The establishing scenes are somewhat off – the art direction is beautiful, and the set-up is workmanlike, but the two young actors give mechanical and interchangeable child performances (a weird touch you can’t unsee is how their hair has been unnaturally dyed a color other than their own).
Bradbury’s beautiful passages, like the introduction of the lightening rod salesman, is now a folksy character turn from Royal Dano.
Once the sinister stuff kicks in, so does the movie: Mr. Halloway’s initial glimpse of Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) in the distance, throwing carnival notices into the wind, is a great image. Pryce, seething contempt and arrogance, is ideal as Mr. Dark. Pam Grier’s Dust Witch lacks definition but she’s an unsettling presence. Diane Lane’s role is almost lost to the editing choices.
Mary Grace Hanfield remains ingrained in my memory as the grumpy, “once beautiful” schoolteacher who is spellbound by a vision of restored youth.
Stephen King’s “Needful Things” is an obvious homage and re-telling of Bradbury’s tale, with Mr. Dark and his Pandemonium Carnival replaced with Leland Gaunt and his antique store of cursed items that bewitches and seduces a town. The 1993 film adaptation, directed by Fraser C. Heston, is undervalued and sometimes thrilling, though as truncated as Clayton’s take on Bradbury.
My favorite scenes from Bradbury’s novel aren’t here, though I blame budgetary and special effects limitations at the time for this: the Dust Witch’s nighttime balloon ride and how a villain is dispatched by a “smiling bullet.” I once had the joy of reading an edition of Bradbury’s novel that was autographed and had snippets of his original screenplay, which was a more thorough, faithful adaptation than the final result.
A scene of sexual enticement inside a circus tent is eerie, as it should be, capturing a child’s bewilderment with eroticism. Far stronger is the brief but graphic shot of a boy’s decapitated head, an indication of how far Clayton initially tried to take this.
The film’s early teaser trailer (which you can see on YouTube) provides further evidence of how much scarier this used to be, with alternate visuals and a far graver tone not in the final cut.
James Horner’s brooding score was famously a replacement for the rejected music provided by Georges Delerue. The legendary, unused Delerue score is, likewise, far more ominous, though as beautiful and layered as one would expect from the brilliant composer. Horner’s replacement score is very good but isn’t a work of true dread and beauty like Delerue’s soundtrack.
There are wonderful scenes, like Mr. Halloway’s first daylight encounter with Mr. Dark, who bears a chilling set of tattoos (and later bleeds on one of the boys) and the fantastic scene between the two of them in a library at night; the actors bring some essential dramatic power.
Robards’ unforced naturalism and Pryce’s imposing, controlled turn is exactly what the film needed, filling in the void left by the two young, appealing but inexperienced actors. Dark’s tempting the elder Nightshade with youth, by tearing out pages that glow with each lost offer, is a fantastic bit.
The themes of evil invading the innocence of childhood and the fear of parental death comes across, despite the missing pieces.
Reportedly, scenes that failed to impress a test audience and Disney executives were cut, while new scenes and effects were added for a second, improved version, released in theaters a year later. How odd, that the second grown up horror film from Walt Disney Productions would have a nearly identical, tortured trip to the big screen as their inaugural, far more mishandled “The Watcher in the Woods.”
The anomaly of a Disney horror film makes these titles supreme curiosity items, though Clayton’s film has real visual brilliance and boldness, the more promising disappointment of the two.
Because there’s so many missing story elements and scenes that appear to have been cut too short and not properly aligned, we’re constantly getting pulled in by arresting moments but kept at a distance from the compromised post-production.
The most telling deletion is the outcome of the town folk who fall under Mr. Dark’s spell: these tragic figures embrace the magic but find that there’s a catch, such as blindness or an inability to speak. We never see what becomes of them, or even if the spell ends when the carnival leaves town.
Another major editing flaw is visible in the late scene where Mr. Halloway acts strangely while trying to protect the boys in the carousal – it’s in the book too, as the emotions being forced are meant to counter Mr. Dark’s hold.
Here, it doesn’t work and is over too quickly to fully register.
What Clayton managed to pull off is commendable, but this is due for a remake worthy of Bradbury’s masterpiece. In an era when J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” can receive proper adaptations that match the literary ambitions and scale of the source material, Bradbury’s carnival is overdue for another visit.