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.
The 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.
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.