“Disney horror movie.” It sounds like an oxymoron and in many ways it is. Disney never really made horror movies; not in ways that really counted. You got a few straight-to-cable family films like Mom’s Got a Date With a Vampire and Tim Burton made some headway (though they generally shuffled him off to the Touchstone brand), but real full-on scares? Not in this company, baby.
That’s part of what makes Something Wicked This Way Comes such an interesting film, despite its flaws. Along with The Watcher in the Woods, it may be Disney’s only honest-to-God effort to tell us a horror story. (That’s not the same thing as “scare us,” of course; just ask any five-year-old who’s seen Snow White.) Even more fascinating is the way it does an end-around on horror’s traditional audience: teenagers and twenty-somethings for whom the film’s earnest approach and periodic dead patches may come as a colossal bore. Children, however, should respond to its Boys’ Own battle against the forces of evil, as will folks over thirty who understand the darkness hinted at by Ray Bradbury’s original novel. Bradbury wrote the screenplay himself, and retains a lot of the book’s poetry of language here. It doesn’t quite sound natural, but its lyricism feels quite at home in the Norman Rockwell setting… a setting that also helps it fit in with Disney’s particular brand of nostalgia.
The story takes a unique twist on the Faust formula, so unique it has since become a cliché. An infernal carnival arrives in a postcard-perfect small town circa the 1920s. Its owner, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) gains new performers by granting visitors their fondest desires, which naturally turn back on them in dramatically appropriate fashion. So the womanizing barber becomes a bearded lady, the old schoolteacher becomes young again – and loses her sight so she can’t enjoy it – and so on. A pair of young boys discover the carnival’s secret and must dodge Mr. Dark’s minions before he adds them to his collection.
His infernal bargains hold particular strength when it comes to questions of age. Jason Robards plays one of the boy’s fathers, an older librarian who longs for his childhood days and perhaps envies his son’s innocence. The other boy, Jim (Shawn Carson), lacks a father and aches to be an adult so badly he can taste it. Mr. Dark offers them both what they want – thanks to a merry-go-round that alters your age – and both of them have to think long and hard over the choice. The film’s most powerful moments play on our need to look forward too eagerly or backward with too much regret. The scares are mild, the implications far less so. The film’s despair of the soul – a revulsion at the gap between desires and realities – hits us in ways that the nonexistent jolts do not.
That makes the squeaky clean setting totally appropriate, as well as demonstrating how the House of Mouse could parlay its zeitgeist into something resembling real horror. Pryce’s stage background helps out immeasurably here, since he can infer the monstrosities that the studio’s image won’t allow. That allows director Jack Clayton to maintain his delicate tightrope act from end to end, letting adults fill in the ominous implications of Mr. Dark’s operation without freaking out the kiddies.
Something Wicked This Way Comes stalls from time to time, as we wallow too deeply in nostalgia and the gee-whiz innocence gets in the way of forward momentum. But it also gives the film its own distinctiveness: a children’s fable sophisticated enough for grown-ups and which foresaw later horror-fantasy efforts like Pan’s Labyrinth. Bradbury’s work always struggled on the big screen. This, thankfully, reaps due rewards for its efforts, and pulls a unique identity out of its seemingly awkward combination of elements.