Something Wicked This Way Comes

(Jack Clayton, USA, 1983)

BY TOM PHELAN | October 31, 2023

Beware the autumn people. You know who you are. Curled up under a blanket each October rereading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It may as well be called A Halloween Carol—the story of a carnival of ghouls who arrive in 1930s Green Town, Illinois, to tempt its residents into trading their souls for the usual needful things: beauty, youth, and money. The novel’s screwy, beguiling prose achieves an energy and comfortably creepy atmosphere that Jack Clayton, best known for directing The Innocents (1961), gets half right in his 1983 film adaptation. The crackling leaves, boiling storm clouds, and warped calliope tunes set the mood, but the real charge builds in any frame that contains Jason Robards or Jonathan Pryce—and lightning strikes when they finally meet.

Mr. Dark of “Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival” is played by Pryce with simmering menace. He hands out free tickets to his mirror maze and carousel—traps for the restless, baited with lost time for some and lust fulfillment for others. Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), best friends on the cusp of adolescence, are new candidates in the lust category. Charles Halloway (Robards), a self-defeating man in his fifties, is an old hand at regret, so desperate to start over he can barely talk to his son Will. The story wobbles at first, then takes off at the midpoint as Mr. Dark pursues the boys, who have discovered his secrets, and the father must act despite his fear. The confrontation between good and evil involving the four of them in the library is a delightful scene of revelation, book-quoting, and existential terror.

It should be noted—and I can verify—that this movie scared the bejabbers out of a generation of ’80s children who learned to shake their covers for tarantulas before going to sleep. The severed head of a child, bleeding palms, and poor Pam Grier (as the Dust Witch) skewered by a lightning rod. Did I mention this is a Disney movie? It’s an odd artifact from Disney’s fascinating dark age under CEO Ron Miller in the ’70s and ’80s when everybody was getting gritty in search of that blockbuster buck. See also The Black Hole (1979), The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and The Black Cauldron (1985) for more experiments from the Mouse as mad scientist. One can only sigh and wonder what Sam Peckinpah, who was earlier attached to direct Bradbury’s story, would have done with the picture.

The beauty of this film is how it changes once you grow up. Watching as a child, I barely noticed the father—I was too busy hiding from Mr. Dark under the street grille with Will and Jim, wishing we three were older and able to fight. Watching as an adult, I see the middle-aged man now, and my heart stops with each page Mr. Dark rips out of the library book, one page for each year that Charles has wasted from fear of living in the present. Fear makes kids look ahead and adults look behind. This is what the film gets right: it’s a classic fable about time as an endless series of autumns for those who refuse to accept what’s happening now. Screen this some gusty October night, even if the ending slightly disappoints. Bradbury, who wrote extra material for the Disney version, delivered this verdict on its imperfection: “Not a great film, no, but a decently nice one.” And one that I always return to with pleasure. 🩸


a writer living outside Philadelphia, is currently working on a horror project set in western Pennsylvania. He co-wrote the movie Anamorph, starring Willem Dafoe.

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