Based on the best-selling 1962 novel by venerable SF and horror writer Ray Bradbury--who also penned this cinematic adaptation--1983's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES is the unabashedly nostalgic story of two young boys, Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), who engage in a battle of wills with Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), the nefarious proprietor of a preternatural carnival that that literally blows into the boys' hometown one brisk October night (circa 1940). When Will and Jim discover that Dark and his troupe of midway miscreants are hiding some evil secret that might endanger the town, the boys take it upon themselves to uncover the truth and protect their friends and neighbors.
Some viewers are surprised to learn that this somber film is a product of the Walt Disney Company. Though there are the lovable small-town characters that one expects from Disney, it is admittedly rare to find a Disney flick with an incorrigibly evil character such as Mr. Dark (obviously the Devil in all but name). It is also unusual for a Disney film to have such a grim atmosphere, at least one that is not regularly punctured with puerile comedic relief, but SOMETHING THIS WAY COMES has a consistently spooky ambiance and an earnestly frightening plot, both of which elevate it to the level of a genuine horror film DESPITE its Disney label.
The performances in SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES are top-notch. Jonathan Pryce is deliciously wicked as the enigmatic Mr. Dark--genre fans might recognize Pryce as the actor playing Governor Swann in the 2003 blockbuster PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL--and Jason Robards does a fine turn as the wise librarian father of young Will. Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson, the two young actors portraying Will and Jim, are relative newcomers whose lack of substantial experience is an asset rather than a liability, as it actually adds to the realism of their characters' youthful innocence. Some of the seasoned actors that fill supporting and background parts also contribute greatly to the quality of the film. The gorgeous Pam Grier, star of several popular "blaxploitation" flicks in the 1970s, plays the carnival's witch-like fortune-teller; Diane Ladd plays Jim Nightshade's mother, a woman who is raising her son alone after both were abandoned by the boy's father; and Ellen Geer, daughter of the late Will Geer of TV's THE WALTONS, portrays the mother of Will Halloway. Horror fans might recognize the late Royal Dano in the role of Tom Fury, the lightning-rod salesman. During his lengthy career, the ubiquitous Dano appeared in such genre favorites as Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964), and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988); and also in episodes of genre TV shows like LOST IN SPACE, NIGHT GALLERY, AMAZING STORIES, and TWIN PEAKS.
Although the script does not have the same scope and attention to detail found in the novel, Bradbury has still done an exceptional job of translating to screenplay the novel's eerie essence and moral subtext. And director Jack Clayton does almost as well in visually interpreting Bradbury's script. He generates the perfect atmosphere for some genuinely creepy moments, and he is also quite adept at evoking Bradbury's primary theme of innocence lost.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES generates most of its chills and scares the old-fashioned way--through atmosphere, suggestion, good plotting, and great characterization. Unfortunately, the flick was originally released during the peak of the first big wave of slasher films in the early 1980s, and it was therefore unfairly ignored by moviegoers and panned by critics. But thanks to the cool folks at Anchor Bay, this little beauty has a new lease on life via DVD.
Anchor Bay's disc is short on extras, offering only the theatrical trailer and the option of viewing in either pan-and-scan or 1.66:1 Letterbox formats. But the digital transfer looks nearly pristine--even when viewed on a widescreen HDTV-- with only a few minor defects from the source print noticeable. In keeping with the subject matter, the film was shot with dark tones and subtle hues, and these come through wonderfully on the DVD. Serious collectors of horror films on DVD won't want to let this genre gem slip away.