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Film / The Witches (1990)

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The Witches is a 1990 film based on the 1983 novel by Roald Dahl, starring Anjelica Huston, directed by Nicolas Roeg and produced by Jim Henson, the last film he produced; it was also the last screen version of a Dahl work made while the author was alive (the film was released shortly after Henson's death and shortly before Dahl's) and the final theatrical feature made by Lorimar (although the company continued in television for a few more years before being absorbed into Warner Bros.).

The endings of the book and the film are drastically different due to Bowdlerisation. To say Dahl was a wee bit disappointed by this would be a massive understatement.

See also the 2020 film version.


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Provides examples of:

  • Accidental Passenger: Luke (in mouse form) hides in a dustpan in the hotel kitchen. Mr Stringer picks up the dustpan and brush to clear up a mess at Luke's grandmother's table, conveniently taking him back there.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: It seems that Luke and Bruno are trapped in mouse form, only to be subverted when Miss Irvine turns Luke back to a human.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy:
    • Bruno Jenkins is most certainly not a nice boy (let alone the narrator's friend) in the book, given in his free time he fries ants with a magnifying glass and boasts about his father, whereas in the film he's pretty friendly and good-natured (albeit pretty dim and greedy at times).
    • Likewise, rather than being a Rich Bitch and a Jerkass, Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins are shocked and willing to believe that their son has been turned into a mouse. At the least, Mr. Jenkins doesn't ramble about how Topsy the cat is his wife's favorite pet. However, he seems more than willing to cheat on his wife with the Grand High Witch.
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  • Adaptational Origin Connection: It’s heavily implied that the Witch who took Luke’s grandmother’s finger as a girl was the Grand High Witch herself.
  • Adapted Out: The three children-turned-frogs that the Boy encounters in the Grand High Witch's room do not appear in the film's version of the scene.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: In the book, all the victims of "Formula 86" are described to turn into brown mice, but in the film, when Luke and Bruno are turned into mice, their fur stays their original hair color (blonde and dark brown respectively), probably as a means for the viewer to be able to tell the two apart better. And when the witches become victims of the potion themselves in the climax of the movie, they all turn into mice with black-and-white fur. All of them except the Grand High Witch, who turns into what appears to be a hairless rat.
  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Downplayed in that it's not so much a name change as it is a name shortening: the Grand High Witch's potion is simply referred to as "Formula 86", rather than the book's much longer "Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse Maker". This is justified since you can't fit that name on a tiny bottle.
    • In the book, the grandmother's childhood friend was named Solveg, which is not a name used often in English-speaking countries. In the movie, the same friend was renamed Erica, which is a much more common name and more familiar to English speakers, while still being Scandinavian.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: The Grand High Witch zigzags this in her true form. On one hand, she doesn't look like a rotting corpse but rather an aged crone. On the other hand, these features are exaggerated so she has to force her elongated nose and chin into the mask, making her look equally as monstrous.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The 1990 adaptation added to the Grand High Witch's already vile nature by being willing to push a baby in a pram down a hill to lure out Luke.
  • Alien Blood: The witches bleed green, as seen at the climax when various witches-turned-mice are squished or chopped up.
  • Alone with the Psycho:
    • The boy freaks out when he's working on a treehouse in his backyard and a witch appears below, attempting to lure him down with a snake. He hides in the tree and stays there until it's dark and his grandmother appears, reassuring him that the witch is gone.
    • It's then taken up to eleven when he realizes he's locked in a room with every single witch in England at the Hotel Magnificent, and the only way to evade detection is to stay quiet and out of sight (he's hiding behind a screen divider) and hope his lack of washing means they won't smell him. They almost don't detect him, but a witch named Mildred smells him out just as the meeting ends and everyone is leaving.
    • Bruno too late realizes that he's been lured in to serve as living proof that the mouse-making formula works. Even so, it doesn't hit him what happened until the other boy points out that Bruno now has a tail and fur.
  • Antagonist Title: The story itself is named after its main threat, the witches.
  • Ascended Extra: In the book, the boy confirms that he never saw the Snake Witch again after their encounter. In the film, the witch actually shows up at the convention and is eventually turned into a mouse alongside the other witches.
  • Asshole Victim: The Grand High Witch frequently 'fries' her minions. Given they're evil, child-killing witches, it's hard to feel sympathy for them.
  • Bad Boss: The Grand High Witch. She mistreats Miss Irvine, her assistant, throughout her service. The final straw comes when she refuses to let Irvine attend the RSPCC dinner, causing her to quit. Ironically, this enables Irvine to be the only witch to escape the mouse massacre.
  • Bald of Evil: Every witch is completely bald, and must wear itchy wigs that give them serious scalp rashes.
  • Bowdlerise:
    • Apparently, Dahl hated the ending of the film and stood outside cinemas with a megaphone, telling people not to see the movie. He was in his seventies at the time so he must have really hated it. Especially when you consider that he died later the same year, so he was probably ill at the time. He loved that Anjelica Huston was the Grand High Witch, though.
    • The UK version, in order to keep the movie to a PG rating, edited the film to remove two scenes: the Grand High Witch removing her wig and revealing a bloody scalp, and Bruno writhing around on the ground in pain as he turns into a mouse.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Inverted for the disguises of the witches, which make them look like nice and charming ladies. Played straight with Miss Irvine at the end, who becomes the sole good witch and is shown to suddenly possess perfectly normal-looking, human hands when she shows up to turn Luke back into a boy.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Turning into a mouse is shown to be a grotesque and humiliating experience, but we don't ever actually see this happen to Luke; instead his transformation is shot from a first-person perspective.
  • Big Bad: The Grand High Witch, the bona fide leader of the witches who hatches a deadly plot to wipe out the children of England.
  • Big Eater: Bruno Jenkins, who is described as always eating something. Even as a mouse, he's always more interested in whatever food is present.
  • Bizarre Belching: People who've been dosed with the Grand High Witch's Formula 86 let out a loud burp as soon as the potion takes effect; this soon escalates to puking clouds of green smoke, twitching spasms, and a horrifying-looking transformation into a mouse. Bruno is the first victim to demonstrate this but by no means the last. In the finale, the witches are unwittingly given a dose of the potion, with the dining hall erupting in loud burps as the transformations begin; however, the Grand High Witch is able to resist the effects - so it takes Bruno taking a flying leap in her direction to get her to lose concentration and finally let out the fatal belch.
  • Canon Foreigner: Miss Irvine, the Grand High Witch's assistant.
  • The Cameo: Michael Palin appears as one of the witches in the conference.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Grand High Witch magically adds sugar to Luke's grandma's tea when she recognizes her. Even though his grandma says she only had a little bit before noticing, she slips into unconsciousness later and thus Luke is unable to awaken her when he's fleeing from the witches.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Luke is captured by the witches because he had to save the pram pushed toward a cliff by the Grand High Witch rather than save himself.
  • Composite Character: In the book, Grandmamma tells five stories about different children who were attacked by witches. The movie combines them all into her friend Erica.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The Grand High Witch, the Big Bad of the story, wears black and purple (complete with a black wig). Her secretary Miss Irvine has a golden wig and wears white. Now guess which of them ends up turning good.
  • Covers Always Lie: The poster shown above depicts Luke as a cartoon mouse wearing glasses. In the film itself, he's a realistic-looking mouse brought to life through Jim Henson puppetry.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: The Grand High Witch has these.
  • Cross-Cast Role: Many of the background witches at the 'RSPCC' meeting are played by bald male actors.
  • Cultural Translation: While the movie still takes place in Norway and the United Kingdom, and Luke's grandmother, Helga, is still Norwegian, Luke becomes American. This raises the question: Why did his parents want him brought up in England (in the book, it's implied that the boy is of Anglo-Norwegian descent)? Also at the end of the book, the boy and his grandmother plan to kill off the next Grand High Witch in Norway and use the information at her castle to track down all the Witches in the world. In the movie, Luke gets an address book with the names and addresses of all the Witches in the United States.
  • Darker and Edgier: Even with the tacked-on happy ending, the film is quite brutal and scary, especially for young kids. This is something else Dahl had a problem with, worried that it could seriously screw kids up. The film had explicit Gorn, unlike The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
  • Deathly Unmasking: Despite her best efforts to resist the effects of Formula 86 in the climax, the Grand High Witch changes to the point that her human facemask ceases to fit and falls off; moments later, she completes her transformation into a particularly ghastly-looking mouse, whereupon she's chopped in half by the manager.
  • Death by Irony: The chef witch who samples the Formula 86-spiked cress soup. After she’s turned into a mouse, she runs into the dining room to try to warn the others, only to get mistaken for a child by the Grand High Witch, who promptly crushes her under her foot, sealing the fate of herself and all the England witches.
  • The Dreaded: Notice how all the other witches love and like and admire The Grand High Witch but are scared of her. The witch, who she kills with eye beam powers, and the other witch, who points out poison, are shaking when The Grand High Witch confronts them.
  • Dropped Glasses: As Luke tries to escape from the witches, he drops his glasses and steps on them.
  • Dull Surprise: In-Universe, Bruno the Mouse's reaction to his sudden realization he's now a mouse is a "Good lord!" with the tone of voice of "Ain't that a bother?" — and then adopts a "Welp, sucks to be me, I guess" attitude.
  • Dying Vocal Change: In the finale, the Grand High Witch is transformed into a mouse along with all the other witches at the banquet; with her voice having audibly changed along with her, she can only squeak incomprehensible orders... right before the hotel manager chops her in half. It's not known why this happened, given that Luke, Bruno, and even other transformed witches have all been heard to speak in perfectly ordinary human voices as mice, but there you go.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While Miss Irvine is willing to point out her own kind to be executed for the pettiest of disagreeing opinions, subtle facial expressions imply that she is shocked when the Grand High Witch refers to the potential child as an "it" to be exterminated and is the only witch to not show sadistic glee at Luke's transformation. Hinting at her turn to good at the end wasn't out of nowhere.
  • Evil Is Petty: The Grand High Witch recognizes Luke's grandmother as someone who had once opposed her. It's implied that she magically puts sugar in the diabetic woman's tea and turns her cucumber sandwich into tuna paste just to screw with her.
  • Eye Beams: Used by the Grand High Witch in the incineration scene.
  • Eyedscreen: This effect happens frequently during the witches' meeting: not as a camera trick, but when Luke is hiding behind a folding screen, looking through a horizontal gap, and only his eyes are visible.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Bruno fails to notice he's turned into a mouse until the protagonist points it out to him.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: This happens on-screen to one witch who samples the cress soup doped with Formula 86. After being turned into a mouse, she runs back into the dining room attempting to warn the others... only to promptly get crushed underfoot by the Grand High Witch, complete with green vital fluids splattering on the carpet.
    Witch Mouse: Don't touch it! It's in the soup! Don't touch the
    Grand High Witch: Child! (crunch)
  • Fantasy Gun Control: The Witches don't use guns or knives not because they can't, but because their magical methods can't be tracked by the police.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Just like in the books, the Witches are amongst the Villain with Good Publicity and Bitch in Sheep's Clothing variety. Not to mention, the stylish ruses they use to lure and rid of children.
  • Fix Fic: The film could be seen as a controversial example, given that Dahl himself was upset at the writers inserting a character who, at the end found the boys and turned them back from mice to humans, going against the explicit ending of the book.
  • Forced Transformation: Both the protagonist and Bruno are turned into mice by the witches.
  • Foreshadowing: One of the witches asks the Grand High Witch what would happen if a grownup were to swallow Formula 86; the latter simply scoffs, "Then that's just too bad for the grownup!" In the end, we actually do see a group of grownups fall victim to the potion: the witches themselves.
  • Forgot About His Powers: The Grand Witch conveniently forgets her Eye Beams when Grandma confronts her during the climax.
    • Possibly justified as the camera angle did provide a closeup of her purple eyes as if she were about to use her magic, but the formula may have robbed her powers. None of the witches attempt to cure themselves despite being able to reverse the effects as Miss Irvine was shown to be able to do in the end.
  • Furry Confusion: Addressed. Child-mice can talk. Real mice cannot, as Luke finds out when he encounters his pet mice as a mouse himself.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Miss Irvine, who pulls off a Heel–Face Turn, wears a blonde wig.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The last surviving witch in England turns good at the end, and reverses (at least) Luke's mouse transformation.
  • Hellish Pupils: The witches have glowing purple points in their pupils.
  • Hot Witch: The Grand High Witch (when masked) and Miss Irvine.
  • Hope Spot: The witches' meeting ends and it looks as though Luke has survived without being noticed... then one of them smells him.
  • Hypocrite: The Grand High Witch repeatedly mocks Grandma about her age, calling her old woman in comparison to herself even though the Grand High Witch herself in her true form, is an aged crone.
  • Jerkass: Mr. Jenkins is rude to the hotel staff, complains constantly about the amenities, and tries to flirt with Ms. Ernst while his wife is nearby. He narrowly avoids some Laser-Guided Karma when Luke's grandma stops him from eating the soup laced with Formula 86.
    Mr. Jenkins: (In the dining room, seeing the witches eating soup, he beckons the manager Mr. Stringer) Oi!!! What soup is that?
    Mr. Stringer: That is the cress soup, sir.
    Mr. Jenkins: If they're having cress soup, I'll have a cress soup.
    Mr. Stringer: Ah you see, that soup is reserved for their party. The soup on tonight's menu is cock-a-leekie, and very nice it is too.
    Mr Jenkins: But I don't want cock-a-leekie, I don't like cock-a-leekie, I like cress. So you will go out there, and tell the chef de cuisine that there is one more order for cress. Now, there's a laddie!
  • Jump Scare: When Luke is sending his pet mice William and Mary around the rollercoaster for mice, there is a sudden close-up of a cackling model skeleton.
  • Large Ham: Anjelica Huston, prior to her more calm and collected portrayal as Morticia Addams, does a delightfully hammy performance as the evil Grand High Witch.
  • Last-Second Villain Recovery: In the finale, the witches are all given a dose of Formula 86 and begin transforming into mice, doomed to be killed by the hotel staff. However, though she's clearly beginning to feel the initial effects of the potion, the Grand High Witch is able to resist the process and begins advancing on Luke's grandma, clearly intent on killing her before the transformation kicks off. However, at the last second, Bruno takes a flying leap at the Grand High Witch, startling her into losing concentration and transforming into a helpless mouse... whereupon she's chopped in half by the manager.
  • Life Saving Misfortune: The Grand High Witch refuses to let Miss Irvine attend dinner with the rest of the witches, but this inadvertently saves her from the fate of the others.
  • Magic Pants: Completely averted. They even showed Luke naked when he gets turned back to human form.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Luke meets a witch in England who tries to lure him down from his treehouse with a snake she claims to have found on the path, but it's a corn snake, native to North America. (Of course, it's obvious she's lying, and she's a witch, but it fits the trend of corn snakes being commonly filmed when you need a snake, whether it's the right location or not.)
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Miss Irvine's motivation behind her Heel–Face Turn.
  • Morphic Resonance: After Luke and Bruno are turned into mice, they each have fur that matches the color of their hair. When the Grand High Witch is turned into a mouse at the climax, it is hairless and grotesque in a way that resembles her undisguised human form.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The main character and his grandmother are now named Luke and Helga Evesham respectively. Additionally, the Grand High Witch is named Ms. Eva Ernst, though it isn't said if this is her real name or just an alias she uses to check into the hotel.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: If the Grand High Witch hadn't refused to let Miss Irvine attend the RSPCC dinner, Irvine would have been turned into a mouse along with the other witches and Luke would have remained a mouse forever. As it happens, Irvine is able to find him and restore him to human form.
    • She then proceeded to seal the fate of herself and the others by killing the witch chef who samples the cress soup doped with Formula 86. After being turned into a mouse, the chef runs back into the dining room attempting to warn the others... only to promptly get crushed under The Grand High Witch's foot because she had mistaken her for a child.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Grandma's tales of children trapped and killed by witches are chilling, despite nothing happening on screen, using the viewer's imagination to supply the terror.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: On several occasions, Luke's grandmother uses her age to her advantage by pretending to be a confused old woman.
  • Phantom-Zone Picture: Grandma's story about Erica, who was trapped in a painting by a witch.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Grandma explains that witches don't kill children with guns or knives, because people who do that get caught. The Grand High Witch herself confirms this when she chides a witch for suggesting the use of poison instead of magic.
  • Prehensile Tail: Luke grabs and carries the Formula 86 Delayed Mouse Maker potion with his Tail.
  • Related Differently in the Adaptation: A minor example; in the original novel, the grandmother was stated to be the mother of the narrator's mother, whereas in the film she tells Luke that she told his father stories when he was Luke's age, all but explicitly stating that she is the father's mother in this version.
  • Resized Vocals: Zig-zagged; after being transformed into mice, Luke and Bruno can still use their ordinary speaking voices. In the finale, the same goes for the chef witch when she's exposed to Formula 86. However, when the Grand High Witch herself is finally overwhelmed by the potion and begins to visibly transform, her voice sounds increasingly high-pitched, until she finally shrinks down into a hideous-looking mouse that can only squeak incoherently. Consequently, she can't be understood and is assumed to be just another unwanted mouse in the dining room, leading to her being hacked to death by Mr. Stringer.
  • Resourceful Rodent: The main characters are turned into mice by witches and they have to outsmart them so they turn back into humans.
  • Shapeshifting Excludes Clothing: When someone is turned into a mouse, they leave their clothes behind. When this happens to Luke, the witches stomp on his clothes in an effort to kill him before he can escape.
  • Shapeshifting Sound:
    • Whenever a character is transformed into a mouse by Formula 86, it always kicks off with a massive burp, and is often accompanied by a great deal of rushing gasses and squeaking as the victim's voice grows progressively higher. In fact, the mouse-like squeaking is the first indication that the Witch Chef is beginning to succumb to the effects of the potion in the soup she just tasted.
    • The film ends with Luke being restored to normal, first shedding his mouse shape then growing back to normal size; both stages of this transformation are accompanied by a loud creaking sound effect.
  • Smug Snake: The Grand High Witch. She is powerful and rightly feared by her enemies and minions alike, but her plan to kill all the children in England is not a good plan at all (see Didn't Think This Through). Also, considering her supposed talent for potions and such, one would think that she would be careful enough to ensure that said potions wouldn't work on her.
  • Technically a Smile: The "smile" the Grand High Witch gives Bruno's father could freeze mercury.
  • Toilet Humour: The witches hate children because, to them, children smell like dog droppings.
  • Token Heroic Orc: The Grand High Witch's secretary becomes this in the end.
  • Transformation Discretion Shot: The mouse transformations take place largely on-camera, with each stage of the process accomplished either through makeup or puppets, as is the case with Bruno. The exception to this rule is Luke's transformation: the audience only gets to see him suffering the distinctive twitches after being force-fed Formula 86, and the rest of the transformation is conveyed through shots of the jeering spectators from Luke's increasingly-distorted POV, concluding with a shot of an enormous Grand High Witch laughing down at him as he shrinks backward into his clothes.
  • Transformation Trauma: Bruno's transformation is downright horrifying and the Grand High Witch turns into a mix of a reptile and rat before completely into a hairless rat-like mouse.
  • Underestimating Badassery: The Grand High Witch recognizes Luke's grandmother as an old adversary, but believes that age has made her feeble in the body in mind. Note how she emphasizes Grandma's age and buys the "dotty old lady who dropped her knitting" act without becoming suspicious, which ultimately proves her undoing.
  • Undignified Death: The Grand High Witch, the evilest and most dangerous witch in the world, is reduced to a naked rat making incomprehensible orders, trapped in a glass cup, and killed by Mr. Stringer amongst the chaos of the mouse witch massacre as an afterthought.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The Grand High Witch has three succeeding ones. First, when she realizes she's been subjected to her own mouse transformation formula as she stares angrily at Grandma with the intent of harming her. Secondly, when in her partial transformation state when she makes empty threats to Grandma. And finally, when she's reduced to a rate, she makes incomprehensible orders, being utterly infuriated at her humiliation right before she dies.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Or rather, what happened to the one who might not be a mouse? One of the witches, Elsie, works at the hotel as a maid. She is not seen eating the soup with the other witches. So there might still be a bad witch on the loose in England.
    • And there’s Marlene, the maid who Mr. Stringer was having an affair with. She dabs Formula 86 onto her neck, thinking it’s perfume. The last time we see her, she’s horrified to see that a patch of fur has grown on her neck as her whimpers become high-pitched squeaks. Did she turn into a mouse as well?
  • What You Are in the Dark: After the climax, Mouse! Luke states that he knows he only has a few more years to live, but to hell with it. He urges Grandmother to take him to America to spend his remaining life armed with the witch registry to take out the witches there.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Each witch makes it their personal hobby, to hex a child once every week. The Grand High Witch herself takes it to another level- wanting to eliminate all children- starting with England and pushes a pram with a baby in it down a steep hill to lure out Luke but also because she felt like it. The witches react by a feigned shock that sounds more like delighted giggling at the deed.
  • You Have Failed Me: At every annual meeting of the witches, the Grand High Witch makes a point of subjecting one witch to "getting fried" (being incinerated with eye beams), so that the rest stay on their nonexistent toes. Since we're never told how more witches come about, it's amazing any are left. (The main character himself wonders this.)

 
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Bruno

Bruno Jenkins finds himself being used as a horrific demonstration of Formula 86's power to turn children into mice - resulting in him burping up green smoke and shrinking out of his clothes.

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