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The Witches at 30: a horror film for children that continues to terrify | Film

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If there’s one defining image from Nicolas Roeg’s zippy yet cruel adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, it’s that of Anjelica Huston ebulliently pushing a stranger’s baby carriage down towards a cliff edge. While a gory death might then be averted, it’s an almost unfathomably sadistic moment, a shocking act of hate contained within a glossy PG-rated studio fantasy. Even 30 years on, as the line between films aimed at children and teenagers blurs ever more, Roeg’s 90 minutes of mostly unfettered nastiness remains a startling watch, a bitter little fairy tale to keep kids up at night with a fear of torturous death.

What makes The Witches so horribly effective, both on page and screen, is that this fear is aimed at a group that children have traditionally been taught to see as safe. It’s not just that the antagonists are women, it’s that they’re women who are made to resemble harmless family friends or neighbours, aunts or teachers, figures we expect to coo over babies, not try to murder them. Hollywood has forever fed into reductive and tiresome stereotypes of women as either mothers or molls, usually identified by their feelings towards kids. We’ve seen in countless films that a woman who loses a child also loses her sanity too, and that women unable to conceive are instead driven to steal a baby from elsewhere. The women we’re shown who don’t want children are usually glamorous femme fatales whose disinterest in motherhood is explained away by a more general sociopathy or unwanted spinsters who have seen their lives amount to nothing as a result. In The Witches, a large cross-section of women didn’t just not want children but they wanted to kill everyone else’s, an unapologetic and bloodthirsty desire for a child-free world.

Various feminist critics of Dahl’s book and Roeg’s movie expressed distaste with its portrayal of childless women as murderous hags, although in recent years, some have seen it as more forward thinking and less misogynist in its worldview. Author Caroline Kepnes views it as “a hilarious, feminist commentary on women, work and family” where men are ineffective and women possess more power, something that might prove horrifying to those frantically upholding the patriarchy. In an ingenious, info-packed intro, we’re given a beginner’s guide to witches courtesy of Mai Zetterling’s Helga, who tells her grandson Luke, Parenthood’s Jasen Fisher, how to spot one of them, an urgent lesson that could end up saving his life.

They’re foul creatures with square toes and blotchy scalps but wear sensible shoes and wigs to fit in. Writing for the New Statesmen, Jemma Crew views this as a way of the story rebelling against “aesthetic rules imposed on women”, a way of showing how so many are forced into impossible beauty standards by society and how men fear and criticise those who don’t conform.

Their aim is to infiltrate without detection so they can kill as many children as possible, but in order to evade capture they must avoid using “knives or guns” and instead find inventive ways to dispatch of bodies. In arguably the film’s most chilling sequence, we see a girl kidnapped by a local witch and then trapped in a painting where she’s forced to live out the rest of her life, alone, doomed, with her family, crippled, watching from outside. It’s one of many staggeringly hopeless notes we’re left to sit with, a trademark not only of the story’s original author Dahl, whose work often delved deep into gleefully nihilistic territory, but of Roeg, a director whose often perverse films were aimed squarely at an open-minded adult audience and who seemed a strange, dangerous choice for a slick Warner Brothers family movie.

But somehow, hiring the guy who made a film so filthy that it was shelved and then dumped by scared studio executives before shooting arguably the sexiest sex scene ever to make a film for kids proved to be a masterstroke. Roeg’s deft and entertaining late summer critic-pleaser maintained the sourness of Dahl’s source material while also transplanting the book’s sprightly pace. Sure, children are killed, but that hurtling pace and that Stanley Myers score sure make all that killing rather fun, huh? (Myers was also an unlikely choice, best known for his work on The Deer Hunter). Bar one controversial diversion which I’ll come to, Roeg doesn’t dampen the malevolency of the novel or his unusual, uneasy style, making certain unpleasant scenes that much more unpleasant with clammy, claustrophobic close-ups and unsettling Dutch tilts, shooting it like an adult horror movie, albeit one with goofy comic elements. His careful tonal control is matched by a ferocious performance by Huston as the Grand High Witch, a scene-devouring turn from an actor swiftly seesawing between camp and callous, a scary, funny and sexy villain without a visible shred of humanity.

While Jim Henson’s de-wigged witches are monstrously effective (it was the last film he personally worked on before his death), it’s those in disguise that prove more nightmarish, posing as polite and unremarkable representatives for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So while Huston’s unmasking scene remains a showstopper, there’s something more long-lasting about the surreal image of well-dressed women scouring the Cornish bluffs for a child they want to turn into a mouse. They succeed at downsizing our hero Luke, but he then goes on to destroy this particular coven before setting his sights on witches worldwide. This is where that aforementioned diversion comes into play. A happier ending was written that saw Luke turned back into a boy by a defecting witch who uses her magic powers for good, a spoonful of sugar heaped over the original, darker finale, which saw Luke remain a rodent. Dahl was incensed, and so Roeg agreed to shoot both endings and see which one test audiences preferred. Predictably, the happier endnote won out, and in response, Dahl threatened to take his name off the film, something Henson later urged him against (he still referred to the finished product as “utterly appalling”).

Huston gives a ferocious performance as the Grand High Witch.



Huston gives a ferocious performance as the Grand High Witch. Photograph: Warner Bros/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

It does still clang to end with such jubilation after what’s come before but given how far the film goes in many ways, it’s an understandable sacrifice. In Roeg’s autobiography, he noted that early rushes from the film were far more frightening throughout but after road-testing it on his rather terrified young son, he recalibrated. As an eight-year-old who sat drenched in fear watching it for the first time, too scared and embarrassed to leave the room, what he kept in was enough to cause me night terrors for months after. Ultimately any concessions didn’t matter commercially as the film underperformed despite a string of glowing reviews. But fondness remains, so much so that a remake is due out next year from Robert Zemeckis with Anne Hathaway drafted in as the Grand High Witch and, in a comically Hollywood move, 50-year-old Octavia Spencer playing the grandmother (Zetterling was 65 in the original). There’s an interesting change in location – this time it’ll be Alabama in the 1960s – and Zemeckis has said it will be “a sociological spin” on the story, a head-scratching proposition that we’ll have to wait until 2021 to see play out.

Watching the 1990 original as an adult, nightmares long behind me, it’s a relief to see just how justified my earlier troubled reaction was, the product of a vicious little film that even now strikes a far nastier note than the majority of family-friendly studio offerings. It’s very much part of a particular era of darker kids films alongside Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal and Something Wicked This Way Comes, all of which were similar box office disasters, a sign that kids wanted to be amused rather than scared. While my briefly traumatised eight-year-old self might not agree, there’s something important about experiencing at least a somewhat neutered, PG-friendly form of horror at a young age. “Being scared is a rite of passage,” children’s author Joanna Nadin once said, “but a pleasurable one. I don’t see the gain in mollycoddling.”

Dahl and Roeg’s portrayal of purple-eyed child-killing sadists might be fantastical but it’s also brutally effective, a salient reminder for younger viewers to be more aware of their surroundings and to use trust sparingly. There’s no straight-laced PSA about not talking to strangers that could have achieved that fear quite so brilliantly as watching a boy get turned into a mouse or a girl get trapped in a painting. The Witches is a scary movie for kids who need scaring.

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Max Winslow and the House of Secrets review – lightweight Wonka-esque movie puzzle | Film

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Targeting the demographic intersection between geeky YA fiction readers, folks interested in psychology that doesn’t go much deeper than an internet quiz, and supermarket puzzle magazine fans, this sci-fi-inflected thriller is moderately satisfying as long as you don’t think about it too much.

In a bland Arkansas suburb that happens to have been the home town of tech billionaire inventor Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray), five very different high-school kids are invited to take part in an exclusive competition at his secluded mansion. The prize is a lifetime supply of chocolate … oh, sorry, no … the prize is the mansion itself – but the Willy Wonka parallels are about as blatant as the nominative determinism of the mysterious benefactor’s surname. Only this time, given Mr Virtue has been detained, the role of maybe-malevolent host-guide is taken by the disembodied voice of the house’s sentient computer, Haven (voiced by Star Trek alumna Marina Sirtis), who sets the kids a series of problems to solve that may be more dangerous than just counting jelly beans.

The title character Max (Sydne Mikelle) is a shy-but-pretty-under-her-flannel-shirts coding champ with daddy issues; she pals up with Connor (Tanner Buchanan), the school star lacrosse player, who turns out to be a more sensitive soul than his jock reputation would suggest. A popular girl obsessed with her online image (Jade Chynoweth), a bully (Emery Kelly) and a gaming addict (Jason Genao) fill out the quintet. Before the night is over, all of them must confront their darkest fears, generated with simple effects and the magic wand that is a screenwriter’s “because tech” justification.

This is hardly profound stuff, although the most creepy and resonant aspect is arguably the plotline revolving around the popular girl who gets stuck in a bathroom staring into a mirror version of herself that’s much nastier than the real thing, a simple cinematic sleight-of-hand that depends entirely on Chynoweth’s skill in projecting bitchy malevolence. A darker, hipper version of this movie might have made her the protagonist and proved more amusing to watch than the simpering leads we have here.


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The Climb review – hilarious true-to-life bromance | Film

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I laughed hysterically during the first scene of The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino’s brilliantly original indie bromance. The setting is France, where two Americans – best friends since childhood – are on a cycling holiday. Mike (played by Covino) is head-to-toe in Lycra, obnoxiously spouting cycling terminology. His out-of-shape friend Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin), is trailing behind, puffing and panting. Mike waits for the start of a particularly tough climb to confess he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancee. Kyle: “You’re like a real-life Judas!” Mike: “On the plus side, that makes you Jesus.” At one point, Kyle gets off his bike and carries it, running up the hill in pursuit of Mike. Tragedy and slapstick run through the film and it is very funny.

The Climb charts the ups and downs of Kyle and Mike’s toxic friendship over a dozen years or so – and I can’t think of a film about male friends told with such microscopic attention to detail.

It’s structured in seven chapters. Chapter two takes place at a funeral a few years later – the first time the men have clapped eyes on each other since the bike ride. The tables have turned. Mike is going to seed, drinking too much, disappointed by life – and it becomes apparent that he is a rampant narcissist. Meanwhile, nice-guy Kyle has lost weight and achieved minor success writing advert jingles. If he feels a flush of schadenfreude at seeing how ropey Mike looks, he’s disguising it. The chapter ends with a hilarious graveside altercation involving a shovel.

Co-writers Covino and Rankin are friends and observe their characters beautifully. They don’t ignore the female roles, either. Gayle Rankin is just as memorable as Kyle’s partner, Marissa – like everyone here, she feels like someone you might know. My only disappointment was that I had to watch it at home: I wanted to be in a cinema laughing at the inappropriately funny bits with other people.

The Climb is in cinemas from 23 October.


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Legally Blonde 3 Now Has A Release Date

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In these quarantined times, one delightful thing that’s emerged is movie and TV casts doing Zoom reunions. Legally Blonde is the latest one to get in on that action.

Tonight, Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Jennifer Coolidge, Ali Larter, Holland Taylor and more all got together to talk about the history and magic of Legally Blonde.

“Of all the movies that I’ve made, there is one that comes up more than any other and that is Legally Blonde,” Reese said. “And I think that’s because of Elle Woods. I think she just inspired people to believe in themselves. She just has a true sense of herself and she always wants to see the best in others.”

The film’s star went on to share that the iconic “Bend and Snap” scene was almost a “musical sequence,” but, in that version, it felt kind of “odd” so it ended up becoming what we know and love now.

“People always, always ask me to do the ‘Bend and Snap,'” Reese revealed. “That was a full musical sequence that we ended up cutting out of the movie. It was just so fun, but it felt so odd because it was only one sequence.”

For Reese, making Legally Blonde was her college experience. “This is where I went to college,” she said. “I didn’t finish college but I finished Legally Blonde and we all got together and made this movie together that has inspired so many young people and it’s just such a gift… Every time people come up to me and tell me they love this movie, I give it all to you. I share it all with you all.”

Thankfully, Reese and co. will be giving us all more Legally Blonde in the future. After the cast’s reunion, MGM Studios finally shared the Legally Blonde 3 release date. If only we could now fast forward to May 2022.

Elle Woods is back! Legally Blonde 3 coming May 2022. We rest our case.
#LegallyBlonde3
#ElleWoods
@ReeseW

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