The 1980s was a fertile period for fantasy films and Disney tried to capitalize on this in the early part of the decade with an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was a turbulent time for the Mouse House as they struggled with making commercially successful live-action and animated movies. So, they decided to take a chance on a few projects that did not originate in-house and were not typical Disney fare, including Tex (1982), Tron (1982) and this Bradbury adaptation (1983). The author adapted his own work and legendary director Jack Clayton (The Innocents) came on board, but the project was plagued with several post-production problems that threatened its integrity. This is apparent in the amped up, special effects-laden finale, but it does little to diminish the power of the film.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is narrated by Will Halloway as an adult (Arthur Hill) reflecting on his misadventures as a 12-year-old (Vidal Peterson) with best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) during October in the small town of Green Town, Illinois. We see them playing together after school and Clayton really captures the carefree life that kids enjoy at that age, how “you want to run forever through the fields, because up ahead, 10,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut,” as the voiceover narration says. In a few minutes, Clayton captures a bygone era so brilliantly that you can almost touch the leaves or smell the crisp, cold air. The film is drenched in autumnal atmosphere, thanks to legendary cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish), so that you want to run forever and can almost smell the smoke in the air as the voiceover narration informs us.
Traveling lightning rod salesman Tom Fury (Royal Dano) tells Jim that his house is in need of protection. While Tom is trying to make a sale, he is also foreshadowing the danger that will threaten Jim and his friend later on. Something Wicked offers a loving, romantic look at small-town life as we meet key townsfolk who all know each other. This sets up the fragility of the town’s infrastructure and how one dark storm can threaten it, giving Will (and us) his “first glimpses into the fearful needs of the human heart,” as his older self sagely observes. Clayton introduces all of these personable pillars of the community so that we become invested in them and this establishes just what is at stake. This pays off later on so that we are put on edge when we see them in peril as their very dreams and desires are preyed upon in order to take their souls.
One night, a train brings a carnival to town. Jim and Will sneak out of their respective homes to take a look at the train as it arrives. All the tents and attractions are erected simultaneously as if by magic. The boys soon meet Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), the proprietor of the Pandemonium Carnival and an enigmatic figure full of mystery and magic. We get a little teaser of this when Jim and Will first meet him and notice a constantly moving and swirling tattoo on his arm. They also witness other strange magic at work, like a striking carousel that goes in the opposite direction, causing those that ride it to get younger. Mr. Dark subsequently uses the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), “the most beautiful woman in the world,” to bewitch and seduce the men in the town.
Something Wicked is chock full of gorgeous cinematography, like the shot of the carnival at night in silhouette while dark storm clouds gather overhead. There is also disturbing imagery like when Jim and Will discover the latter’s head decapitated by a guillotine or a menacing green mist that pursues the boys as they run home or the onslaught of spiders that invade Jim’s bedroom, reaching a nightmarish pitch until they wake up.
Thankfully, Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson aren’t the typical precocious child actors, but instead deliver thoughtful performances as our adventurous protagonists that become involved in a battle for the very soul of their town hanging in the balance as they must stop Mr. Dark with the help of Will’s father, Charles (Jason Robards), the town’s librarian.
He’s a wise, older man with a heart condition and Clayton offers a visual cue as to the man’s fragile health by placing a coffin in the background of a scene with the librarian looking rather apprehensive in the foreground. The always reliable Jason Robards anchors the film with his trademark gravitas as he plays a man full of regret over things in his life he didn’t do. There is a nice scene between Charles and Will where he confesses his regrets. It is a touching moment with a tinge of melancholy that sets up the librarian’s desire to redeem himself. Robards brings a world-weariness to a man that has never left his town and never took any real chances in life.
Jonathan Pryce is well-cast as the malevolent Mr. Dark, using black magic to take the souls of the townsfolk. The actor has loads of charisma with a commanding voice that has a cultured, Shakespearean air to it. He has nice scene with Robards where Mr. Dark exerts his influence to question Charles about Jim and Will’s whereabouts. It’s great to see two talented actors like them square off against each other. They manage to top this scene with another where they quote literature to each other as a way of verbal sparring with some exquisitely written dialogue being brought wonderfully to life.
The roots for Something Wicked This Way Comes originated from Ray Bradbury’s childhood: “When I was seven years old, one of my cousins died, way out in the farm country. At three a.m., I would wake up and hear a locomotive passing by in the distance. For me, that was like the sound of the dead going by in the night. I never forgot it.” He always loved circuses and magic and this resulted in a short story entitled, “The Black Ferris” which was first published in pulp magazine Weird Tales in May 1948. Ten years later, actor Gene Kelly wanted to work with the author. The two men met and after screening Invitation to Dance (1956), Bradbury wrote an 80-page treatment entitled, Dark Carnival. Kelly wanted to direct it, but was unable to secure financing and it was shelved.
Bradbury took his treatment and adapted it into a novel called Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962. Over the years it sold more than 18 million copies and Hollywood came calling with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler buying the rights and the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Mark Rydell and Steven Spielberg considered to direct at one point or another. Peter Douglas, son of actor Kirk Douglas, met Bradbury in a bookstore in 1975 and subsequently bought the film rights to the novel. Douglas made a deal with Paramount Pictures and then-president David Picker, but with the stipulation that Bradbury, who had a close affinity for his novel, would adapt it himself. However, Picker left, according to Clayton, after an “alleged feud” between him and studio chairman Barry Diller and his replacement wasn’t interested in the project. After a year of it being in turnaround, Douglas was in danger of losing his option on the book and his father stepped in, giving him the money to renew the option.
Douglas met with director Jack Clayton, who was interested, and then approached Walt Disney Productions in 1981. Studio executives were looking for “something unusual,” according to Bradbury, and agreed to bankroll the film. The author had always wanted to work at Disney. In 1962, Bradbury had sent Walt Disney a copy of his novel and got a letter back saying that he liked it, but felt it wasn’t right for the studio. While working on the screenplay with Clayton, Bradbury realized that he had to be ruthless and this resulted in omissions, the diminishing of screen-time for characters he loved, like the Dust Witch, and images from the book that they felt could not be translated onto film.
Almost $3.5 million (from a $16 million budget) worth of sets were constructed by production designer Richard MacDonald (Cannery Row). It was a challenge casting child actors for the roles of the two main children because Clayton preferred to work with kids that had very little experience. Principal photography began in September 1981 on the back lot of Disney Studios. Originally, Clayton had planned to shoot in a town in Texas, but it was too close to rainy season and shooting on a back lot allowed them to stay on schedule. During filming, Bradbury kept his distance, but snuck onto the set “at sunset, just to stand in the band cupola … It was just great to be surrounded by this small town, I felt I was home.” Shooting lasted 63 days, which Clayton felt was too fast, especially dealing with special effects.
Almost a year after principal photography ended, several scenes were reshot and Disney spent $3 million on post-production special effects, utilizing the same computers that created the effects for Tron. It took so long because during filming, Disney’s most experienced visual effects artists were busy with Tron and during that time the effects tests were always wrong. It was only when they were done with Tron that Clayton was able to get proper effects done for his film. A few years after the film’s release, actor Jonathan Pryce was rather candid about the problems the production ran into. He said that Something Wicked “wasn’t conceived as a special effects film because the budget originally wasn’t there.” He claimed that Clayton originally envisioned a film about atmosphere “implied by people’s fears, and through the actors and acting,” and this resulted in Disney executives panicking because they assumed audiences wanted to see a special effects-heavy film like Star Wars (1977). Pryce also claimed that the studio spent millions of dollars on computer graphics that weren’t used in the final cut.
Something Wicked This Way Comes enjoyed mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Without Jason Robards as the father who has disappointed Will, and is given a chance to redeem himself through the evil that the carnival creates, the movie might be nothing but eerie.” However, in his review for Starlog, author Alan Dean Foster wrote, “Something Wicked gives us a charming remembrance of Midwestern boyhood, but it doesn’t terrify us. The evil in Something Wicked does not go bump in the night without first saying, ‘Excuse me.’”
Some films only affect you as a child, benefitting from being seen at an early, impressionable age, and lose their power as you get older. This is not the case with Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is an enthralling dark fantasy – a horror film for children yet will appeal to adults as well. Careful what you wish for because you just might get it is the film’s central theme. There is no easy way to realizing one’s dreams. They should be achieved in their own natural way, but that should be left up to the individual, not dangled in front of them like some kind of carrot, dazzling them so that they don’t think of the consequences. Something Wicked is a fantasy horror film not afraid to expose children to the darkness of the world and doesn’t do it some sanitized way, but one that put its youthful protagonists in real danger while imparting important life lessons.
Lofficier, Randy and Jean-Marc. “Jack Clayton: Directing Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Starlog. June 1983.
Lofficier, Randy and Jean-Marc. “Ray Bradbury: Weaving New Dreams and Old Nightmares at Disney.” Starlog. July 1983.
Pirani, Adam. “Jonathan Pryce: The Boy from Brazil.” Starlog. April 1986.