Disney has always had a love affair with the macabre. You need to only look at several plots and subplots of the classic movies. The boys turning into donkeys in Pinocchio probably has terrified people over the decades. In Sleeping Beauty, Malificient turns into a dragon as she battles Prince Phillip. Then, you have the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia where a demon summons all souls and skeletons.
We love to tell scary stories, pull pranks on others or the occasion “Boo!” That feeling of sudden terror followed by a relief that it’s not real is a crazy drug we won’t admit we need and enjoy. Disney operated by a code of ethics that made the Hays Code look like Larry Flynt oversaw it. I’m sure many animators and other crew members needed a break and saw movies like The Wolfman or the Hammer’s vampire movies with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. Even Uncle Walt, himself, probably enjoyed a good old scary movie or story from time to time. I’ve known people who don’t care for sci-fi or fantasy but they will indulge themselves in horror.
By the later 1970s, Disney was looking to broaden its horizons. Two of the most popular movies of the latter part of the decade were Star Wars and National Lampoon’s Animal House. They went after the sci-fi audiences with The Black Hole, its first ever PG-rated movie. Then, they did Midnight Madness in 1981 which had college students drinking beer and a little lewdness here and there to make Benny Hill giggle. The only other hurdle they could cross was horror.
In 1981, Disney acquired the rights to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a valiant effort but the movie I think collapses under its own restrictions. Even with the author himself penning the script, it doesn’t go for the jugular the way an adaptation from a different studio would allow. Jack Clayton who made The Innocents, a wonderful adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, was pretty much directing with his hands tied. Disney would take what he did and re-edit and re-shoot it delaying the release from 1982 to 1983. But more on that later.
The premise is set in the fictional town of Green Town, Ill., a popular town of Bradbury’s fiction, which is meant to represent the idyllic Midwestern/Normal Rockwell town. It’s set in a time that can best be described as the period between the late 1930s and the late 1940s judging by the limited technology with the phones that are in use as well the fasion and style, particularly a classroom.
Told through the eyes of Will Holloway (Vidal Peterson), a young boy who still hangs out with his best pal, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), all the time. It’s an age-range when they still could have fun and run and jump over small hedgeds (even though every period piece movie has young boys running you’d think Tom Cruise was a silent producer). Will and Jim are not just friends but neighbors. Jim’s father is gone and no one wants to admit he basically abandoned the family. Will’s father, Charles (Jason Robards), is the local librarian and he and Will have a bond that is still buddy-buddy before adolescence and puberty ruins it.
The movie never mentions why Charles looks like he’s old enough to be Will’s grandfather, but it does make us think that Charles was one of those types who spent his 20s and 30s doing whatever he could before finding a woman played by Ellen Greer in her 30s afraid of becoming an “old maid.” Jim’s mother is played by Diane Ladd. But unlike Will’s mother, she’s not too settled into becoming a mother. She still lives in the past where she could attract men, but didn’t realize that she’d end up as a mother.
Age plays a huge part in the movie as the boy’s teacher, Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) used to be the most attractive woman in Green Town. There’s also Ed the Bartender (James Stacy) who lost one arm and an leg, but still olds on to his golden days as a star football player. When the circus comes to town with the eerie Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), he offers them youth and vitality, but at a price. Miss Foley sees herself as the younger blonde (played by Sharan Lea) she used to be. But she becomes blind and unable to see herself.
Other people in the town also have their wildest dreams come true but it comes at a price itself. Mr. Dark even tries to entice Charles for his youth if only he can give up Jim and Will, who have discovered what he is up to. Charles’ behavior around his son is revealed to be as a result of his own guilt for not being able to save Will when he was young and swept away by wild river currents one day. It was Jim’s father who saved Will. Sadly, the movie never really does touch on the right way Charles should feel knowing that the younger father saved Will. Even if Charles attempted a rescue, his older body may not have reached Will in time.
Part of the problem is the re-shoots and re-edits create continuity issues. During one scene where Will and Jim are terrorized by tarantulas in Jim’s bedroom, you can tell that it was shot much later because both Peterson and Carson look older, even though the scene is shot in the dark. You can also tell that Disney wanted a more gradiose climax as Bradbury’s book has Mr. Dark dying after he turns himself into a child, and is more or less hugged to death by Charles who literally kills him with kindness.
Originally produced on a $16 million budget, Disney spent another $5 million on the re-shoots and special effects as well as adding a voice-over narration by an adult Will (Arthur Hill). The problem is none of it worked. It got mixed reviews and only grossed about $8 million at the box office before failing into obscurity. It’s not even on Disney-Plus at the current time.
There’s some greatness to the movie. Robards is very good in the role but he was often very good in everything he did. I remember being freaked out by Pryce’s Mr. Dark performance when I was a kid. Pam Grier has a devilish turn as the Dust Witch who adds a little seductive lust to the role that probably wasn’t intended by Bradbury. Ladd is very good in the few scenes she’s in but you can tell it was probably a bigger role before Disney chopped it apart. The casting of Angelo Rossitto as a little person who works for Mr. Dark and catches the boys looking in a tent of something they’re too young to see is a nice wink and homage to the classic horror film Freaks.
But you can tell that Disney realized that the movie didn’t balance the child actors with the adult actors equally. Carson and Peterson are just too innocent for these roles that should be a little darker. According to imdb.com, this is Carson’s final film role but he only has a handful of credits. Peterson had already appeared in TV and movies but wouldn’t find much roles throughout the 1980s and basically stopped acting in the early 1990s. Clayton’s The Innocents had child actors who were good in their roles and terrifying. I get the feeling there was a darker toned movie that Disney didn’t want people to see. Just like The Black Hole and Midnight Madness, you can still see the Disney live-action aesthetics that you would’ve found on those Kurt Russell of Love Bug movies.
Years later, the studio would start Touchtone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures (both now defunct) to release more mature movies that even had R ratings. A decade later, more darker and erotic movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Color of Night would be released. You got to remember that by the spring of 1983 when this was released, there were hard-R slashers being released almost every other week. Even Poltergeist with its PG rating was able to bring in audiences of all ages.
I think this is a good try to make a horror movie, even though it’s technically classifed as dark fantasy in its genre. Sometimes, you have to crawl before you can walk. But by 1983, they should’ve already been walking better. Reports indicate the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies in Indianapolis has a VHS copy believed to be the original cut that Clayton intended. And a remake has been planned for almost a decade that will follow the source novel better.
Who knows when or if it’ll ever be made.
What do you think? Please comment.