Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

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It’s that time of year again. The days grow shorter, the nights windier, there’s a howling in the North Country, the leaves turn and the Pumpkin Spice Lattes hit your local cafe. Halloween might be more than a month away, but it’s time to start getting the scares out.

Unintentionally, I began this scary season with my first-time reading of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. While Bradbury may not have invented the ‘evil carnival’ subgenre, his tale of two boys fighting the cotton candy-flavored forces of darkness certainly does it the best. Bradbury’s genius lies not just in the story, but in the language he uses, creating a deep sense of foreboding, an electric energy and excitement for the danger and mayhem to start. He writes the way that Halloween feels.

So having read the novel, I decided that it was a good idea to seek out the Disney film of the same name, starring Jonathan Pryce as the illustrated Ringmaster Mr. Dark, Jason Robards as Mr. Halloway and Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson as the two boys, Will and Jim respectively.

wicked4The film follows Will and Jim, two best friends on the brink of adolescence living in a small Midwestern town that remarkably resembles Vermont. The arrival of Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show in the small hours of the morning precipitates the arrival of Halloween by a week. The carnival offers hopes and dreams to unhappy residents of the little town, and in the process makes them a part of the freak show. Just what Mr. Dark is up to becomes clear, although his motives with regards to the two boys seem somewhat confused.

It’s difficult not to compare the film to the book, of course, but I’ll do my best. This is Disney, after all, and it offers up a fairly clear opposition between the evil of the carnival and the good of the two boys. It largely removes the darkness of Jim’s character, and cuts down the conflict and sympathy between the two friends. The people of the town who join the carnival all have distinct failings: a ladies’ man, a greedy man, a woman wishing for beauty, etc, which the carnival exploits. I was gratified, however, that they did not turn Mr. Dark into a Satan figure, but rather retained the book’s emphasis on the carnival’s love of misery and pain.

The film suffers from a few problems, the biggest of them lack of direction. While I can accept some of the changes to the novel’s structure, they are not replaced by any convincing motives. Mr. Dark appears to go after the boys because of what they see at the carnival, yet his methods largely call more attention to himself as a malevolent force. Mr. Halloway’s unhappiness is likewise a tad confused. The film dwells on his heart condition, but introduces his perceived failure as a father in a rather explicatory scene that doesn’t feel like it fits well with the rest of the narrative. Robards, looks uncomfortable in his part, delivering his lines in a somewhat stilted manner that does nothing to ingratiate him with the audience. Whether this is a fault in direction or in script I cannot tell, for Robards is typically a dynamic actor. But his performance, which should set up a counterpoint to Pryce’s Mr. Dark, lacks conviction. Something-Wicked-s

The highlight of Something Wicked This Way Comes has to be Jonathan Pryce, who imbues his Mr. Dark with all the energy and malevolence we might expect from a good Disney villain. His speech in the library as he searches for Jim and Will comes straight from Bradbury, with Pryce intoning every word with the glee of a carnival barker. He’s thoroughly enjoying himself. While the film tones down some of Mr. Dark’s corrupting influence, Pryce retains his seductive edge. He’s a demonic seducer, offering despair.

I’d love to recommend Something Wicked This Way Comes, and if I’d seen the film before reading the book I might be able to. It’s not the book; the story loses much of its power by establishing a good/evil binary and then wrapping it all up. Aside from Pryce, the performances are stilted – the two boys in particular could have used some acting lessons – and much of the terror falls off after the carnival’s arrival. Being a Disney film, perhaps the director was afraid to really bring the scares. The novel could do with a frightening adaptation that makes use of all the arsenal of horror filmmaking. Something Wicked is a book about Halloween coming early, and it’s more trick than treat.

The Avengers: Death of a Great Dane

Death of a Great Dane (Episode 2-08, November 1962).

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Death of a Great Dane bears the distinction of being the first Cathy Gale episode to be later remade with Emma Peel (as The 50,000 Pound Breakfast). The Gale episode is far more hard-boiled, while the candy-coloring of Season 5 takes some of the edge off later on.

It all begins when a man gets into a car crash and the doctors discover 50,000 pounds worth of diamond in his stomach. Steed and Cathy come in to investigate, leading them eventually to a joke shop, a reclusive and ill millionaire named Alexander Litoff and his staff, and the death of one of the millionaire’s Great Danes. There are some highly enjoyable set-pieces: Steed and Cathy at a wine-tasting together, flirting shamelessly (that scene will also be replayed in Dial A Deadly Number, again with Emma Peel); the final sequence between Steed and Litoff’s butler Gregory; a rare domestic sequence of Steed and Cathy listening to music. Steed suspects that there’s something fishy about the millionaire and his staff, and so attempts to sell them back their diamonds, only to get himself deeper into danger.

The villains in this case are, unfortunately, not terribly interesting. In the Emma Peel remake, Litoff’s staff include a simpering sadist and a tough-as-nails female right-hand. In Death of a Great Dane, the villains are overplayed, with the single exception of Litoff’s butler (Leslie French), whose repartee with Steed is among the best parts of the whole episode. There’s also John Laurie as Litoff’s doctor.

But as always, the point comes down to Steed and Cathy and how much fun they’re having together.  And they are having a lot of fun. The episode most clearly delineates the inherent differences between them, the source both of their attraction and their tension. Steed distrusts the millionaire because he suddenly begins giving to charity, while Cathy claims that Steed looks at the world far too cynically. This conflict between Steed’s cynicism and Cathy’s humanitarianism will come up again and again in later episodes, as she begins to hone his rough edges and help to reveal the much more caring man beneath; as he cultivates her intelligence and energy to fight against villains. Their mutual attraction is palpable in several well-played scenes, their flirtations beginning to take on more energy and intensity. Macnee and Blackman are in top form, visibly enjoying themselves from one scene to the next.

There’s an energy and vitality to this season of The Avengers that won’t be quite matched in Season 3, but will come back in force when Steed switches partners and meets Emma Peel. Here the edges are still visible, making the season rougher, meaner and sexier. Death of a Great Dane gives us that edge in force.

The Avengers: Warlock

Warlock (Episode 2-18, January 1963).

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Warlock is a curious episode. Technically, it was supposed to be the introduction of Cathy Gale, but due to reshuffling in airtimes it wound up coming in the middle of the second series. Steed and Cathy’s first introduction was re-edited to make it appear as though they already knew each other. Nevertheless, I prefer to think of it in light of its original intent.

Warlock hints at some of the weirder aspects of The Avengers that will become more prevalent, particularly in the Emma Peel series. Steed goes to pick up some papers from a scientist, only to discover that the man has slipped into a coma and the papers are nowhere to be found. But it’s a bizarre sort of illness, and Steed quickly learns that it’s linked to an interest in the occult and black magic. This leads him, naturally, to the British Museum, where he meets Cathy Gale and learns a thing or two about the ‘realities’ of the occult. The episode cannily glosses over the supernatural elements with a psychological explanation: if you believe in black magic, you can be affected by it. Cathy joins Steed, finding herself in a black magic circle run by a warlock (Peter Arne), who hires out his services to shadowy figures and has apparently been involved in possessing the scientist.

The plot is flimsy enough, with a bit too much coincidence to make it all worth while. The episode unfortunately fails to follow through on some of the possibilities of a cult, including human sacrifice, bizarre incantations and Cathy’s potential possession by the warlock. Like one or two later episodes, it’s difficult to give credence to the pseudo-psychological explanations, and equally difficult to accept the apparent supernatural power of our neighborhood warlock. The finale, in which Steed has to rescue Cathy from the dastardly clutches of this terrible black magic circle, should have been exciting, but falls flat as well.

Still, Warlock can qualify as a middling episode. Steed and Cathy discover their rapport: Steed is impressed by her audacity in investigating things for herself; Cathy seems attracted to his profession and personal insouciance. There is a lovely little scene where a drunk Steed attempts to entice her up to his apartment to ‘discuss the case.’ Had this aired as the first Cathy episode, Warlock would have provided a lovely little blueprint for their future sparring sessions, as their tension and mutual dislike/attraction leaps off the screen. As it is, the episode falls flat in many ways, but paves the way for later and better incarnations.

“When I find a hunt worth joining, Steed, I like to be in at the kill,” she tells him. And she will be, for the foreseeable future.