Friday, October 2, 2009

Film Friday: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

“October is a rare month for boys.” It’s also one of my favorite months. And nothing says October more than leaves changing colors and horror movies. So let’s spend October looking at different horror movies and contemplating the nature of evil, beginning with an October classic that contains both horror and changing foliage: Something Wicked This Way Comes.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot
Based on a Ray Bradbury novel of the same name, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of Will Halloway, his friend Jim Nightshade and his father Charles Halloway (Jason Robards). Will is thirteen years old and it’s October. On a stormy night, Will and Jim see a spectral train roll into town. With it comes a mysterious carnival, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

The next day, strange and evil things begin to happen to the townsfolk. Their teacher, the elderly Ms. Foley is made young again. The one legged barkeeper is given a new leg and the vision of himself as a star football player. And so on. But none of these gifts come without a price, and the man holding the ticket is Mr. Dark (played by a then-unknown Jonathan Pryce). Dark is not human, though what he is we do not know. What we do know is that he is but one of the evil things behind the carnival (watch for Pam Grier as the Dust Witch), and they are here to feed. What do they feed upon? They feed upon our negative emotions. They feed upon greed and pride and vanity and regret. And the man in town with the biggest regret is Will’s father.

To overcome Dark, they must overcome their own negative emotions. This sets up a fascinating struggle, a battle of wills, between Dark and Will and Will’s father. Indeed, the scene in the library, where Dark tempts Will's father, is so incredibly well done that the scene alone makes it worth your time to see the movie. But there is much more to the movie as well.

In the end, the movie is not ingenious, it’s not terrifying (its effects are about equivalent to Tron, another Disney product of the era), and it did poorly at the box office ($19 million worldwide). Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully enjoyable movie. It is a movie oozing with childhood memories, both of friends, times and places long gone, and it speaks so well to the relationship between young boys and their fathers, and between fathers and their sons. It is the kind of movie that makes you wish you hadn’t wasted so much of your youth and makes you wonder if you aren’t wasting too much now. Roger Ebert, very accurately, called it “a horror movie with elegance.”
The Nature of Evil
Since we’re talking about the nature of evil this month, let’s see what Something Wicked has to say on the topic, shall we? Unlike modern horror movies where the evil character often is evil simply because that’s what the plot calls for and where the evil is merely sadism attendant to murder, Something Wicked offers something more.

Something Wicked presents the idea that evil is powerless against you unless you give it power over you. Dark has a physical body and he displays magical powers, and it would seem he could roam the city doing as much evil as he desired. Yet, he doesn’t. Indeed, as the movie progresses, it become clear he can’t. He only has power over those who have accepted his gifts.

And why would someone accept his gifts? Because they let their negative emotions control them. Ms. Foley longs desperately to be young and beautiful again. She accepts the gift of youth. The barkeeper longs to have both legs again and become a great football star. He accepts the gift of being made whole. The barber longs to have women desire him. He accepts the gift of virility. Each of these people surrender to their vanity, their lust, their regret and make themselves vulnerable. Each of them longs for something they knew they could never get, and each of them longs for it so much their own desires blind them to the evil of what is being offered. In other words, they want it so much they can't see it's too good to be true. And once they accept the gift, Dark has them in his power and they are lost.

But those who do not succumb, like Will and his father, remain protected from Dark. The are beyond his power. Indeed, as mentioned before, there is an incredible scene in the library where Dark comes to find the boys and to temp Will’s father. Will’s father deeply regrets he hasn’t been a stronger father figure for Will. When Will was young, Will fell into the river, but Will’s father was unable to save him because he couldn't swim. Another man saved Will. From that moment on, Will’s father has regretted his weakness and has lived in fear that Will views him as weak. That regret has caused him to waste many of the best years of Will’s life, hidden away in the safety of his library.

It is that regret, that allows Dark to temp Will’s father. But at the same time, in a scene played to perfection by an increasingly agitated Pryce, we see that Dark can tempt, but he cannot take. He has no power over Will’s father unless he accepts the gifts Dark offers. We see the same thing at other times in the film when Dark cannot temp lightening rod salesman Tom Fury and in the failure of Dark's efforts to force Fury to reveal critical information to Dark.

In this message, we find both hope and a warning. We find hope because we are told the power to protect ourselves from evil lies within ourselves. If we do not give in to our darker emotions, evil cannot touch us. But there is also a warning, in that many of the emotions we feel regularly can make us vulnerable (who hasn’t felt regret over something they did or did not do).

Further, there is another fascinating aspect about the evil presented in Something Wicked, which adds to this warning. Unlike so many evil characters today, Dark has an actual motivation -- in other words, he’s not evil merely to give the hero something to overcome or because the director wanted to present a sadistic character. As Pryce himself tells us, the carnival travels the world, only staying in any location until they are chased away by the coming storm that always follows them. During the short time they have in any location, they feed on the negative emotions of the locals. Indeed, it is those negative emotions that call them in the first place.

Thus, Something Wicked warns us that not only do we make ourselves vulnerable to evil if we surrender to our worst emotions, but we make ourselves a beacon for those who would exploit us. And in many ways, this is great advice for the real world. Would you fall for the snake oil salesmen you see on television -- everything from fake weight loss products, to phony impotence cures, to beer that promises to make you attractive to the opposite sex -- if you didn't let your regrets and desires weigh on your mind to the point where they could overwhelm your better judgment? Would you fall for a political demagogue if you didn't succumb to your own envy, your irrational fears or your hatreds? And isn't the fact that we do succumb what keeps these evil creatures coming after us.

That message is what makes Something Wicked a fascinating first shot for our October examination of the nature of evil. Not only does our own surrender to our own weaknesses make us vulnerable to evil, but it is that very vulnerability that gives evil fertile ground in which to grow. In effect, we create our own monsters.

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Writer X said...

I love horror movies without gore. And I'm not sure I've ever been disappointed by Ray Bradbury either. In a way, this movie reminds me of THE HAUNTING (1963), particularly the way Dark tempts/lures peoples' vulnerabilities.

I have not seen this movie in years but your review makes me want to see it again. And October is the perfect month for horror movies. Thanks, Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Writer X. This always strikes me as a great movie to start October with. Good story, great acting, very enjoyable, and very much reminds me of October. It's not all that scary, but it does build tension well and it is very entertaining.

StanH said...

I also enjoyed this movie. It’s creepy without being ghoulish or gross. It has the feel of “Needful Things,” a Steven King effort with Max Von Sydow as the devils agent, or evil if you prefer. Cool flick.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Creepy without being ghoulish or gross is a good description. I would add also that there is a strong story behind Something Wicked, which is normally missing in horror movies, because I think this is more about the boys growing up, "having an adventure", and a story about the relationship between father and son.

It's more like The Wonder Years if a monster threatened to kill everyone.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Although he was not religious, Bradbury had a way of weaving traditional religious (and even somewhat Judeo-Christian) messages into his sci-fi/horror stories. Something Wicked had a very strong "free will" message. There is such a thing as evil, and you can choose to give in to the temptation, or resist it. The analogy ends, of course, in the fact that there is no corresponding God figure to counter the evil one. Thus, the good that would counter the evil comes from man, but he doesn't entirely dismiss the idea of some kind of higher power. For Bradbury, it is simply not an issue whether or not that higher power is God. Good moral messages, but definitely not clearly religious.

AndrewPrice said...

Oops, typo.

Lawhawk, I'm not so sure there isn't a God figure in the movie. Dark and his crew are frantic to be finished before "the storm" drives them away. You could see that as God sweeping in and pushing evil back out. It's not a perfect analogy, but it kind of works.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I think you have a point. Although I would probably call the storm a higher power, it could be God just as easily. And the Old Testament God as well.

rlaWTX said...

This sounds similar to what I remember of the King book "Needless Things". (caveat: I haven't read it in over 15 years; I went thru a S.King phase in college) I remember thinking that it was the creepist of the King books that I had read - simple to understand and self-inflicted.

rlaWTX said...

oops - sorry StanH, I posted before reading...

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, It's not quite like Needful Things because they aren't asked to do anything nasty in exchange. They are simply offered a deal that is too good to be true -- things that should give them pause, but which they want so much that their desire overcomes their judgment.

And once they've accepted, they are lost. They don't roam around doing evil deeds or trapping others.

If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth seeing.

MegaTroll said...

I liked this movie and you're right, it does remind me of October! I'm looking forward to your nature of evil series. I never think of these things when I see films and I'm glad you're breaking it down for us.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. I'm glad you're enjoying the series.

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