Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action Edition: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We have already done the animated films, so we have moved on to the live-action ones. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes 1

Year: 1983

Source materials : originally written as a screenplay, then turned into a novel by Ray Bradbury

Budget: $19 million

Box office: $8.4 million

Plot: In Green Town, Illinois, two young boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, leave from an after-school detention for and hurry off for home. They greet members of the town, all who have their iwn wishes and dreams. They meet Mr. Fury, a lightning-rod salesman and find out about a strange traveling carnival, Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival.


The boys watch the train roll into town in the middle of the night. Although the train seems empty, the carnival is set up almost instantly. It seems to be just another carnival at first, but peoples hopes and wishes start to come true, although some of them disappear.


They boys meet Mr. Dark, whose tattoos move. Later, they boys witness a carousel that turns people younger as it turns backwards. The boys witness Dark interrogating Fury with an electric chair, and Will calls out for them to stop. Dark sends the Dust Witch after them, unleashing a swarm of tarantulas in Jim’s room. However the spell is broken by a lightning strike on the lightning rod that Jim bought from Mr. Fury.


The next day the carnival holds a parade in town and some of the missing people are now part of the parade. Dark is looking for the boys and confronts Mr. Halloeay. Mr. Halloway discovers an entry in his father’s journal, that the carnival had come before. They are creatures that feed off the misery of others.


Dark captures the boys, intending to age Jim to make him his partner. Mr. Halloway heads to the carnival to save the boys. He finds himself in the mirror maze where he confronts his regret: that he was unable to rescue a drowning Will (he was saved by Jim’s father. But Will’s love pulls him through.


As a storm approaches, Mr. Fury, invigorated by lightning, killsvthe Dust Witch with a lightning rod. The Halloways rescue Jim, and a lightning strike traps Dark on the carousel, rapidly aging him. The storm destroys the carnival and the Halloways and Jim head back to town.

Changes from the Source Material: In the novel Mr. Holloway is a janitor, and in the movie he is a librarian. The Dust Witch doesn’t travel via black hot-air balloon but rather in the form of an ethereal, pea-green smog. Instead of Will’s bow-and-arrow defense of his home there is a tarantula infestation of the bedroom. While Mr. Dark is fatally aged by the whirl of the haywire carousel in the film, the ride taken by his business partner, Mr. Cooger, in the novel.

Background: Ray Bradbury wrote the story as screenplay in 1958, intended as a directorial vehicle for Gene Kelly, but financing for the project never came, and Bradbury converted the screenplay into a novel. In 1977, Bradbury sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures. Production never began and the film was eventually put into turnaround. At this time Walt Disney Pictures was concentrating on films with more mature themes in an attempt to break free from their stereotype as an animation and family film studio.

Ron Galella Archive - File Photos 2010

The studio sought Bradbury’s input on selecting a cast and director, and he suggested Jack Clayton. As the film progressed, two differing visions emerged for the film, with Bradbury and Clayton wishing to stay as faithful to the novel as possible, while Disney wanted to make a more accessible and family friendly film. Bradbury and Clayton fell out during production after Bradbury discovered that Clayton had hired writer John Mortimer to do an uncredited revision of Bradbury’s screenplay at the studio’s insistence.

After Clayton submitted his original cut, Disney expressed concerns about the film’s length, pacing and commercial appeal; the studio then took the project out of Clayton’s hands and undertook an expensive six-month reshoot and re-edit. Disney spent an additional $5 million on re-filming, re-editing, and re-scoring the picture, and editor Barry Gordon was required to make a number of changes to Clayton and Nelson’s original cut, removing several major special-effects scenes, and incorporating the new material (directed by Leo Dyer), including a new spoken prologue, narrated by Arthur Hill. Initial test screenings did not fare well with audiences, and Disney re-commissioned Bradbury to write an opening narration sequence and new ending.

Music: For the original score, Clayton picked Georges Delerue who had scored his films The Pumpkin Eater and Our Mother’s House, but his score was later removed and replaced at short notice with a score by James Horner.


Jason Robards as Charles Halloway. He started on Broadway in plays such as Journey into Night, Hughie, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Ah, Wilderness!, Toys in the Attic, After the Fall, The Country Girl, No Man’s Land and The Disenchanted. 2 Films include The Journey, A Thousand Clowns, Hour of the Gun, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Once Upon a Time in the West, All the President’s Men, 3 Julia 4 and Magnolia. Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. Soon after this film he would have his breakthrough screen performance in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Other roles include Evita, Tomorrow Never Dies, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Age of Innocence, Carrington, The New World, and The Wife. He has won two Tony Awards, the first in 1977 for his Broadway debut in Comedians, the second for his 1991 role as The Engineer in the musical Miss Saigon. He recently appeared as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones.

Dianne Ladd as Mrs. Nightshade. For the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She went on to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress on Television for Alice and to receive Academy Award nominations for Wild at Heart and Rambling Rose. Her other film appearances include Chinatown, Ghosts of Mississippi, Primary Colors, 28 Days, and American Cowslip. Pam Grier as the Dust Witch. She rose to fame in films such as The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Sheba, Baby. She starred in Jackie Brown, and had reoccurring roles in The L Word, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Smallville.

Royal Dano as Mr. Fury. He appeared in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Trouble with Harry, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Virginian, The Legend of Jesse James, The Rifleman, and Gunsmoke. He was the voice of Abraham Lincoln in the Disneyland attraction Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Richard Davalos as Mr. Crosetti. Davalos appeared in East of Eden, Cool Hand Luke, I Died a Thousand Times, All the Young Men, The Cabinet of Caligari, Pit Stop, Kelly’s Heroes, Brother, Cry for Me, Hot Stuff, Death Hunt, and Ninja Cheerleaders. He won the 1956 Theatre World Award for his performances in the Arthur Miller plays A View From the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars and said: “It’s one of the few literary adaptations I’ve seen in which the film not only captures the mood and tone of the novel, but also the novel’s style. Bradbury’s prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition, and the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie. In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.”
  • Janet Maslin of The New York Times said the film “begins on such an overworked Norman Rockwell note that there seems little chance that anything exciting or unexpected will happen. So it’s a happy surprise when the film … turns into a lively, entertaining tale combining boyishness and grown-up horror in equal measure;” according to Maslin, “The gee-whiz quality to this adventure is far more excessive in Mr. Bradbury’s novel than it is here, as directed by Jack Clayton. Mr. Clayton, who directed a widely admired version of The Turn of the Screw some years ago, gives the film a tension that transcends even its purplest prose.”
  • Conversely, Variety wrote that the film “must be chalked up as something of a disappointment. Possibilities for a dark, child’s view fantasy set in rural America of yore are visible throughout, but various elements have not entirely congealed into a unified achievement … Clayton has done a fine job visualizing the screenplay by Bradbury himself, but has missed really connecting with the heart of the material and bringing it satisfyingly alive.”
  • Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2 stars out of 4 and wrote that it “opens promisingly” but has a script which “tries to cram too much material into one story” and a climax that “couldn’t be more disappointing,” with “neon special effects that overwhelm the last half hour of the movie. The result is an oddball combination of a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode with the climactic, zapping-the-Nazis scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.'”
  • Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times praised the film as “one of Walt Disney’s best efforts in recent years—a film that actually has something to offer adults and adolescents alike.”
  • Richard Harrington of The Washington Post criticized the “lethargic” pace, “stolid acting,” and special effects that “are shockingly poor for 1983 (a time-machine carousel is the only effective sequence on that front).”
  • Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin lamented that “the novel’s texture has been thinned out so ruthlessly that little is left but the bare bones; and all they add up to, shorn of the slightly self-conscious Faulknerian poetics of Bradbury’s style, is a dismayingly schoolmarmish moral tale about fathers and sons, the vanity of illusions, and homespun recipes for dealing with demons (‘Happiness makes them run’).”

Legacy: It won the 1984 Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and Saturn Award for Best Writing; it was nominated for five others, including best music for James Horner and best supporting actor for Jonathan Pryce. The film was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and Grand Jury Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival.

In 2014, Disney announced a remake of Something Wicked This Way Comes with Seth Grahame-Smith writing the script, making his directorial debut, and producing with David Katzenberg from their producing banner KatzSmith Productions.


My take: I really liked this one and I hadn’t seen it before. Robards and Pryce give great performances and the overall mood is very creepy.

Next Week: A real obscure one: The Watcher in the Woods