|Something Wicked This Way Comes|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 September 1999|
In the 1940s, Ray Bradbury's short story "Black Ferris" was included in his first book, Dark Carnival. It was later adapted as a memorable EC Comics horror story by Jack Davis, and filmed as a half-hour episode of a syndicated TV series. Bradbury also expanded the short story into a screenplay -- evidently for Gene Kelly -- that was never filmed. So he turned the screenplay into one of his most popular novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes. And then Bradbury adapted that into this movie, made by the Disney studio (when it was in transition), directed by Jack Clayton (THE INNOCENTS) and produced by Peter Vincent Douglas.
All of this is to indicate that the core of the story is powerful and memorable, and that perhaps the movie was made a decade too soon. Bradbury himself has mixed feelings about the movie, and you're likely to feel the same way. At times, it replicates the eerie, poetic Americana of the novel as well as anyone could want, but all too often, it's prosaic, unimaginative and empty. There must have been some conflict between director Clayton and producer Douglas (one of Kirk's sons); the movie has a compromised feel, as if the director was continually hauled back from the direction he wanted to go, and sent off on safer, less expensive paths.
It's the 1930s, and October has arrived in Green Town, Illinois. (You can tell because the streets are practically paved in scudding autumn leaves.) The story is narrated by the adult Will Halloway, who was a boy (Vidal Peterson) in those days, always in the company of Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), "my best friend, my shadow." Will is blonde, a boy of sunlight and springtime; Jim is dark, a boy of the night. (Not nearly enough is made of this contrast, which plays so important a part in the novel.)
They're delighted to learn that Dark's Pandemonium Carnival is heading their way; townspeople are a little surprised that a carnival is arriving so late in the year, but everyone looks forward to it. Everyone except Will's father Charles (Jason Robards), the local librarian. He was middle-aged when Will was born, and now is definitely heading into old age, which weighs heavily on him.
Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is the lean, saturnine owner of the carnival, who walks through town, tossing leaflets into the breezy October air. He is, we learn, one of the Autumn People, supernatural drifters who prey on the weakness of us everyday mortals.
The carnival is rather like The Circus of Dr. Lao: it grants wishes for the desperate and the lonely, but always at a price; it's pitiless in its magic. An elderly teacher becomes young again, but she's blind. A man who loves women too well becomes a bearded lady. And so forth. The central idea of "Black Ferris" -- a ferris wheel that, when run backward, makes a passenger younger -- is briefly used here, transposed to a carousel, but Bradbury didn't find a good way to integrate the idea into the fabric of the story. The carnival works some miracles without devices as elaborate as the carousel, so why is it used here?
Also, Charles Halloway has agonized for years over refraining from leaping into a river to save Will from drowning (the boy was rescued by Jim's dad, who left his family not long thereafter). This doesn't work as it was intended, since, after all, Will is right there, alive; it's not as if the boy drowned, or as if anyone other than Charles himself considers him a lesser person for having not attempted a rescued he probably would have failed at in the first place. It's more like Bradbury felt he had to give Charles a dark past, something he had to forgive himself for; the idea that he (eventually) reconciles himself to aging really was enough.
These are minor problems; the film has greater ones elsewhere. The well-designed sets never look like anything other than sets; they're underpopulated, under-decorated, vacant and unconvincing. The movie seems weakly cast. Robards is very good, as is Royal Dano as a heroic lightning-rod salesman (not an everyday part). Pryce is almost on the money as Mr. Dark, and the scene in the library in which he tempts Mr. Halloway with the promise of youth is very well written, directed and played. Pryce never has another great scene, and he and the movie needed one. But the two boys, while never "actory," just aren't strong enough actors to carry it off. Admittedly, the roles almost required the impossible: they had to be played by young actors who were extraordinarily expressive, sensitive and dynamic. Shawn Carson (who was in another creepy carnival movie, THE FUNHOUSE) and Vidal Peterson (a bit better than Carson) are just ordinary boys.
Which, overall, is the major failing with SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES: it's ordinary. Bradbury's powerfully evocative, poetic prose required a production to match, but Peter Vincent Douglas didn't provide it. Many scenes are simply too normal. A questing green mist that follows the boys home suggests an eerie menace; a whole lot of spiders is all we get. The novel, and Bradbury's first drafts of the screenplay, included a mysterious balloon that passed over the town, but the production's budget didn't allow it. The arrival of Dark's train is a highlight of the novel, as is the sequence in which Will and Jim wander through the carnival the night before it opens. But in the movie, the train is just a train, and the carnival looks almost exactly the same the night before as it does in the cool October sunlight the following morning.
Bradbury is notoriously difficult to adapt to films because so much of what's good about his writing is the very writing itself, not the stories or characters. A times, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES does bring Bradbury fully to life on screen, a spine-tingling, evocative fusion of horror, nostalgia, Americana and childhood fable. But far too often, the movie is lumberingly ordinary, dully prosaic and woefully unimaginative. This is one film that might well be remade effectively.
The DVD itself, from the admirable Anchor Bay Entertainment, is short on extras, but the menu is one of the best ever.