Childhood is a precious time, a period during which all emotions are heightened to such extraordinary levels that an ordinarily perfect day becomes incrusted as a golden memory, a bout of tears a happening to reference with bitterness in the pitfalls of adulthood. A scary story stuck with you so long that you might have stayed up an entire night, exhausted, looking obsessively under the bed for a man-eating monster; a particularly frightening scene in a movie (for me, it was seeing Lois Lane almost get buried alive in 1978’s Superman) is something unforgettable, something that temporarily (or perhaps permanently), messes up the bowels of innocent youth.
Something Wicked This Way Comes does the impossible — it captures the romanticized years of childhood with sweeping nostalgia while still managing to work as a horror fantasy that, unsurprisingly, emulates the ghost stories kids tell each other over s’mores and freshly-cut grass on hot summer nights. Though produced by Disney, it is not a children’s movie, rather a psychological, sometimes fantastical, drama for adults that combines real life horror with the outreach of the psychedelic macabre. It’s uneven, but when Something Wicked This Way Comes works, it sticks with you, like a one-track-minded fly on the wall.
It takes place in flashback, living in the memory of its now-grown protagonists, Will Holloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), who, as depicted in the film, are thirteen-year-old best friends living in rural, Technicolor Illinois. Life is carefree, made of the little quirks that become beautiful items of the past. But the most disturbing memory, the one that changes their lives forever, is the focal point of the film, being the arrival of Mr. Dark’s (Jonathan Pryce) Pandemonium Carnival, which features strange wonders unlike any circus the two have ever encountered. After much snooping, though, the friends discover that the origin of the carnival is much more sinister than it first appears — and it may soon begin to affect their own lives.
Something Wicked This Way Comes combines horror and fantasy with a sensationally uncanny atmosphere, impenetrably unsettling in the most imaginative of ways. But I’m not so sure about the implementation of its children’s movie tropes, which, despite being mainstays of Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name, feel slightly forced, as the film is produced by Disney who, unwisely, believed it would work out as a family night out (it was a flop, barely able to even make back half of its budget). Luckily, though, Clayton (Room at the Top, The Innocents) keeps the ambience mostly chilly and hallucinatory — it is nightmarish in a warm, childlike way, its scares comparable to something out of an impressionable child’s biggest fears. Oddly enough, one could say that the film is touching, frank about the struggles of adulthood and attentive toward the sacred years of childhood.
Leading actor Jason Robards makes for a sturdy, reluctant hero, with Pryce and an under-appreciated Pam Grier working as quasi-villains whose mysterious personae are never much explained and therefore make them characters that linger in the memory. And that’s what Something Wicked This Way Comes does — it lingers in the memory, with its eccentric touches, its coming-of-age twirls, its fantasies, for better or worse. B