“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” says librarian Charles Halloway in Ray Bradbury’s aptly named classic Something Wicked this Way Comes. The quote comes directly from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and encapsulates the whimsical and eerie atmosphere of Bradbury’s 1962 novel about the arrival of a strange carnival in small-town Illinois.
The story doesn’t take place in space or on another planet, like the settings Bradbury is best known for. In this case, the otherworldly element comes in the shape of the “Dark Pandemonium Carnival“ on an October night while Green Town Illinois sleeps. “Mr. Dark“ and his team, which includes “The Dust Witch“, a dwarf and a skeleton, head the carnival. They deal in Faustian bargains. Have a desire? They know what it is, and they’ll give it to you in return for your soul. The dark carnival has a magic carousel that can rewind or speed up time depending in which direction you ride it. This makes the town librarian, Charles Halloway, the perfect prey for the carnival’s racket. Halloway is in his fifties and his son, Will, is only thirteen. Their age difference makes Halloway grumble a lot about being “old“.
Something Wicked this Way Comes
(Harper Voyager; US: Jun 1999)
Something Wicked this Way Comes
Jason Robards, Jonathan Price, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Royal Dano, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson, Mary Grace Canfield, Richard Davalos, Jake Dengel, Jack Dodson, Bruce M. Fischer, Ellen Geer
(Walt Disney Productions; US DVD: 3 Aug 2004)
Another likely victim for the carnival’s clutches is Will’s best friend, Jim Nightshade, who desperately wishes to be older than his best friend, even though they are only two minutes apart in age. Will was born “one minute before midnight, October thirtieth“ and Jim “one minute after midnight“ on Halloween. Unsurprisingly, the mysterious merry-go-round is a constant source of temptation for both characters.
In the afterward of the Avon hardcover edition, Bradbury reveals the novel was originally based on his short story, Dark Ferris. He later adapted it into a screenplay in hopes of making a film with friend, Gene Kelly. When Kelly couldn’t find backing for it, Bradbury scrapped the idea and made it into the novel instead.
Bradbury finally got his film made in 1983. Walt Disney Productions backed it and Jack Clayton directed it. Even though Bradbury wrote the screenplay himself, the film seems confused as to what type of genre it wants to be in. Despite being classified sometimes as a “horror“ movie, it’s definitely not a horror movie (or a horror novel). It’s also classified as a “family“ film, but it has too many genuine scares for the kiddies. Since it is a Disney film and the story is a bit feel-good, the movie sometimes crosses over into the “after-school special“ realm. It’s a Disney film the way A Watcher in the Woods was a Disney film. It’s more of a hybrid between a fantasy and a thriller, this one with a father-son tale mixed in to lend it some wistfulness.
In his 1983 review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote that the movie:
“calls back to an earlier tradition, to the fantasies of Lord Dunsany, Saki and John Collier (but not H. P. Lovecraft!)—horror fantasies in which evil was a distinct possibility, but men also had within them the possibility of redemption.” (“Roger Ebert – Something Wicked This Way Comes”, Chicago Sun Times, 29 April 1983).
The standout characters in the film are Mr. Halloway and Mr. Dark. Jason Robards, who plays Halloway, is the perfect embodiment of the grumbling librarian. He gets ample screen time to tell his son (Vidal Peterson) hair-raising things that these days I doubt many parents would tell their kids, things like three a.m. is considered “souls midnight“ because that “when a lot of people die.”
Jonathan Price (pre-Brazil) also lends the film some much-needed dread as the sinister Mr. Dark. He’s delightfully wicked, walking the streets in his black suit and top hat, eyeing Will and Jim (Shawn Carson) like tasty morsels he’d like to have for an after-dinner snack.
There are two things that bother me about the film, however. The first thing is the music. It’s there, light and melancholy, when father and son bond, and it loudly crescendos when things get hairy. While watching, I kept thinking it would be so much better without any music at all. It’s as if the music is trying to tell the viewer how to feel when I can do that just fine without the music’s input, thank you very much.
The second thing about the film that made me cringe is the bad special effects. They are most prominent in the end of the film when all hell literarily breaks loose. In a scene when Will and his father are trapped in a house of mirrors, Will can see his father in another room having a mental breakdown. After a lot of yelling to his father, Will is suddenly able to reach through the glass and grab his father’s hand, causing the whole place to shatter. Glass flies in slow motion as the two are united. The scene looks like a student film project gone wrong. I realize it was the 80s, but there were a lot of films made around the same time like Poltergeist that got the special effects right.
In the end, the storytelling saves the film. Like the book, it’s a perfect mash-up of two of Bradbury’s favorite themes: small-town life and innocence lost in the wake of something sinister. The film reminds me of E.T. and Stand by Me in its celebration of childhood wonderment, particularly what it’s like to see the world for the first time as something bigger and scarier than you could have ever imagined, and what it’s like to long for that wonderment once it’s gone.