It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The best children's stories are the scariest ones, because to kids they seem most likely to contain the truth. A lot of stories end with everybody living happily ever after, but they're boring stories unless there seems to be a good chance that unspeakable dangers must be survived on the way to the ending. Roald Dahl's children's stories always seem to know that truth, and the best thing about Nicolas Roeg's film of Dahl's book "The Witches" is its dark vision - this is not only a movie about kids who are changed into mice, it's a movie where one of the mice gets its tail chopped off.
The film opens on an ominous note in Norway, with Luke (Chicago-born Jasen Fisher) being told stories about witches by his old grandmother (Mai Zetterling). They're real, she says, and they walk among us. But you can spot them if you get a good look at them, because they have square feet. They're also bald and have pointy noses, but the important thing is, they're not imaginary. The grandmother has even heard tell of a Grand High Witch who rules over the others, and is the most terrible of all.
Tragedy strikes. Luke's parents are killed in a car crash. He travels with his grandmother to England on family business, and they end up in a seaside hotel that is hosting a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Somehow when you see the head of the society, Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston), you don't feel good about your chances of having cruelty prevented to you if you're a child.
Huston, whose energy dominates the film, dresses like a vampire vamp with stiletto heels, a tight black dress, a severe hair style and blazing red lipstick. Roeg often photographs her using lenses that make her leer into the camera, and she's always towering over everybody, especially little boys like Luke. Wandering through the labyrinthine hallways of the old hotel, Luke stumbles upon a private meeting one day, and discovers to his horror that the Society is actually a convention of witches - and that Huston, the fabled Grand High Witch, has plans to turn all of the children in England into mice.