By Rachel Denham-White
Ahhh, the 80s. A time where you could chop a kid’s head off with no consequences.
Wait, that came out wrong.
A time where you could chop a kid’s head off in a PG film, with no consequences.
There we go!
Disney is no stranger to producing dark media for kids. Question any student on campus and it’s likely they’ll have some childhood memory of being terrified by a Disney film, from ‘Pink Elephants’, to Chernabog, to the donkey transformation from Pinocchio. It’s undeniable that Disney movies nowadays are far tamer than they used to be, with most animated movies carrying a PG rating for “mild action and rude humour.” I want to go back to a time when Disney movies and children’s entertainment were actually legitimately scary, a time where frightening imagery and spine-chilling concepts reigned supreme. A time in which the scariest Disney film you’ve never seen was released: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay), Something Wicked This Way Comes is a 1983 film which tells the story of two schoolboys, Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade. When a mysterious carnival materialises overnight near their town, these two boys unearth the unsettling intentions of the circus owner Mr. Dark, a man with tattoos that shift and move. As more and more inhabitants fall prey to Dark’s carnival, only Jim, Will, and Will’s aging father Mr. Holloway can defeat him.
While the film might not be scary according to horror movie standards, it is incredibly traumatising for many children! Bradbury unleashes his incredible talent for creating atmosphere, as the film is drenched in dark, Gothic Americana. The isolated location of a sleepy Midwestern town makes the audience feel trapped within the story, and like the long, drawn out scenes of a Stanley Kubrick movie, this film positively overflows with tension. Jason Robards (Mr. Holloway), and the child actors are great at expressing dread, but Jonathon Pryce gives the standout performance as Mr. Dark. With his tremulous voice, undertaker’s suit, and long, unbroken stares, Pryce oozes creepiness in every scene he is in, and could be in the running for the title of best Disney villain. Once he abandons the guise of carnival owner, Dark reverts to a twisted figure of unknowable, cosmic power, and it is terrifying to behold.
While there are certainly moments of conventional horror, from creepy make-up effects, jump scares, and a whole lot of tarantulas, most of the film focuses on unsaid implications. The Carnival is populated by ‘The Dust People,’ but instead of exploring the magic system behind their presence, their existence is left a mystery. Dark’s carnival also has a twisted monkey’s paw element, as the characters face the tried and tested ‘be careful what you wish for’ story. As the inhabitants of the town disappear one by one, this allows the watcher’s imagination to run riot with what could have happened. Bradbury’s script is full of dark concepts and twisted imagery. As a child, I was always terrified of the sleeping Dust Witch, entombed in a block of ice yet ready to wake up at any moment. The film also boasts some surprisingly gory moments – with, yes, a literal decapitation, with a bloody neck stump and everything! It’s only a waxwork figure, but imagine seeing that in a Disney film nowadays.
For all my praise, the film isn’t perfect. Some of the ancillary creepy characters aren’t focused on NEARLY enough (I’m still waiting for the prequel about my beloved Dust Witch), and the ending feels a little lacklustre. But these flaws are easily overlooked. On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a coming-of-age story redolent of Tom Sawyer and the Losers Club, but underneath, it’s a simmering, cosmic tangle of ancient magic and Gothic themes. With a dusky, autumn setting, it’s perfect for Halloween viewing. But it seems this film has been nearly forgotten, as it cannot be found on Disney+ or any other major streaming websites. The only version I’ve seen is a low-quality copy on YouTube. And, considering how much of a wildcard this Disney film is, I want everyone to see it.
So, Disney: instead of buying another entertainment property or making yet another saccharine villain-origin story…release the Bradbury cut!
Rachel Denham-White is a third-year lit student who can currently be found daydreaming about Narnia.