From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Halloween Special!

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, The Company of Wolves, Legend, and The NeverEnding Story. Last month we promised to do an iconic film starring Tim Curry that’s typically watched around Halloween, and let it never be said we don’t at least sometimes follow through on our promises!

Film: The Worst Witch (1986)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Robert Young, who also did the Halloween classic Vampire Circus (reviewed here by Orrin Grey). Script by Mary Pleshette Willis from the book series by Jill Murphy. Music by Charles Strouse and Don Black, with a little help from Bonnie Langford and Tim Curry. Restrained performances from Diana Rigg (Mrs. Emma Peel, fool), Charlotte Rae (Edna from The Facts of Life, fool), Tim Curry (Dr. Frank N. Furter, fool), and, of course, Fairuza Balk (see our FoHA column on The Craft, uh, fool).

Quote: “Has anybody seen my tambourine?”

Alternate quote: “Donna’s arrived. She’ll be a hundred and thirty six next month and she still acts like a teenager.”

First viewing by Molly: Oh gosh. They showed this on HBO like, every Halloween, and my parents and I watched it, like, every Halloween. I thought it was the jam. Then I forgot about it entirely until I was eating breakfast with my parents at a Residence Inn in Tampa (why do I remember this?) while they were building their house and saw on the TV they were showing. . . something. . . that vaguely reminded me of The Worst Witch but seemed much more. . . well. The special effects weren’t wholly process shots, let’s just put it that way. Thankfully, we had at that point entered the Google Age and I discovered it had been re-made into a miniseries. Anyways, I was happy to remember Mildred and Ethel and the rest, and then I discovered the original was on YouTube . . . oh, internet, what can’t you do?

First viewing by Jesse: A few years ago, when Molly discovered I had a fondness for the dramatic stylings of Ms. Balk yet had never seen this particular entry in her oeuvre.

Most recent viewing by both: A week or two ago.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: IMMENSE. I have for some reason always been attracted to British children’s fantasy (especially as filtered through the BBC), and I liked that the witches in The Worst Witch here weren’t all terrible like in Narnia, since C.S. Lewis never seemed to understand that using magic is cool to children. Also, though I was a far better student overall than main character Mildred Hubble (had Hermione Granger been around whilst I grew up, I likely would’ve been even more all about her), Mildred’s struggles at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches mirrored my terrible, crippling incompetence in math and science. Just as Mildred tried with all her heart to make potions and cast spells, I too tried unsuccessfully to understand (or even find remotely interesting) things like long division, fractions, and algebra. Also my cats at that age were grey tabbies, and when Mildred received a grey kitten instead of a black one, I was pretty darn convinced we were soul sisters.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Nil. I’d never even heard of it.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Amusement. The sheer horror on Jesse’s face when I proposed we do The Worst Witch for FoHA was, frankly, delicious to behold. The best part is that what Jesse didn’t realize was that I feel every bit as mortified watching The Worst Witch as he does because I had a serious-business crush on Tim Curry as a wee Tanz. (Had we done the other iconic Halloween-time film Mr. Curry appears in, I probably would’ve been the one shouting SHUT UP SHUT UP (italics AND bold, people) with a red face—because, look, I’m not going to make the argument that media creates desires, so I’ll merely say that I’m not entirely sure I would’ve developed a taste for things featuring boys looking at each other half-lidded and innocents being sexually menaced as early if not for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, ‘k?). Anyhow, let’s. . . let’s just move on. That’s probably best.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Anxiety, although that possibly had more to do with the ribbing I anticipated receiving from Molly over the presence of a young Ms Balk than the overall film itself. The first time around Molly had yet to realize the extent of my appreciation for the actress in question and so I got off lightly, but I expected no such reprieve for the second go-around. Watching a kids movie featuring a child star who went on to become a highly attractive actor carries the risk of being a mildly creepy venture in the best of times (Molly says: Also, the fact that Fairuza Balk looks exactly the same. . . it is to LOL), and having Molly along for the ride to remind me of this didn’t seem like it would mitigate the squick factor.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: It makes me really sad that kids today (the ones who should get offa my lawn) will watch The Worst Witch and think it’s ripping off a certain other series that might be, at this point, slightly better known. To wit, The Worst Witch came out in 1986, and it is about a school for magically-inclined youngsters where kids from a non-magical background are discriminated against by aristocratic wizarding families and feel frustrated by their exacting Potions master and attend classes like Chanting and the main character experiences difficulties after a rival puts a hex on her broom. Yeah. I’ll just note here how interesting, ah, certain archetypes are, and move along.

Anyhow, all that aside, The Worst Witch is adorably dreadful in all the best ways. Everyone appears to be having such a good time, and the children, while they might not be Hollywood-caliber actresses, really do get the authentic dynamic of girls in close quarters down pat. It’s enjoyable to watch them goof off and giggle and carry on over cute boys and make mistakes. It’s also nice that there’s no sort of concession to the “male audience” we’re always told demands male leads. Boys can take it or leave it—whatever they want—because this is a story written by a girl (the author was apparently 15 when she started writing the first book) for girls, about girl stuff that isn’t makeup and nails and looking sexy. It’s about girls learning and playing and trying to find their place in the world and struggling with being outsiders among outsiders and all sorts of stuff. While I might be reading a lot of this into this particular adaptation, I maintain that I’d be totally comfortable showing this to any (hypothetical and highly unlikely) children of mine, and not in a “it’s thoroughly appropriate” way; rather, in a “parent desperate to counter Bratz dolls depictions of highly-sexualized girlhood” kind of way. Then we’d watch The Company of Wolves. I’ve got it all planned out.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Well, as far as made-for-tv-in-the-80s Halloween-themed movies aimed at children, one could do worse than this. I think. Ms Balk is charming as always, as is Mrs Peel, I mean Mrs. Rigg, and Charlotte Rae is clearly having a ball playing both the headmistress and her evil twin. I mean, really, we’re talking about a movie where the plot revolves around an evil twin, and an evil twin with pink hair and a southern accent at that, so I don’t know how critically I should really be engaging with this tomfoolery.

Everyone talks about Tim Curry’s role, and if you watched the above clip you know there’s a reason for this. His role is what is known as show stopper—once he arrives on the scene and does his song-and-dance number the bar is suddenly raised so astronomically high that you’d need a specialty high-altitude broomstick to crest it. Fortunately, the filmmakers know how to handle this rise in quality expectations, and so most of the remaining film consists of Fairuza Balk flying her broom across blue-screened countryside while trying to cling to a squirmy kitten.

The acting is outrageous, like, Jem and the Holograms outrageous (the truly, truly, truly kind), and the script leaves the thespians plenty of room to chew on the scenery as they flounce about in silly costumes. In principle, I’m ok with this, and am far enough removed from the intended audience of ten year old girls that finding fault with it seems incredibly cruel and bully-ish. As with last month’s Narnia column, the mixture of earnest effort with limited means results in a product that I simply can’t fault, because it’s charm lies in that very combination—it was doubtless a fun film to make, even as it is doubtless a creepy one for an adult man with a “thing” for the star, once she grew up, to watch with a friend who is constantly reminding him of this.

High Points: The Ziggy Stardust poster on the wall of Fairuza’s dorm. The mooning over the painting of Tim Curry in a pink wizard’s robe that the girls all do. Diana Rigg pressing a photograph of Tim Curry to her noble breast and whooooshing out of a room in a tizzy over their alluded-to former affair. The scene where Fairuza and her friend wonder if they’ll ever get big sexy noses with warts all over them. The campy camp campness of it all. Again, this scene:

Low Points: Molly asking me if I was jealous of Tim Curry during the scene when he takes Fairuza Balk flying. That wasn’t just a low point for the movie, but also for my life.

Final Verdict: Growing up isn’t easy.

Next Time: Memory mix-ups abound in November, with both Total Recall (in honor of Molly’s dad’s birthday) and Dark City coming down the pipe. Not sure which masterpiece will make the column here, so, you know. Try to keep steady on that edge of your seat.

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her fiction appears in Running with the Pack, and she has work forthcoming in Palimpsest and Historical Lovecraft. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.