The Witches is a 1990 British/American dark fantasy horror film based on the 1983 children's novel of the same title by Roald Dahl, directed by Nicolas Roeg and stars Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, and Jasen Fisher. As in the original novel, the story features evil witches who masquerade as ordinary women and kill children, and a boy and his grandmother need to find a way to foil and destroy them.
During a vacation with his grandmother Helga in Norway, nine-year-old American boy Luke Eveshim is warned about the witches, female demons with a boundless hatred for children and various methods of destroying or transforming them. Helga tells him that her childhood friend fell victim to a witch and cursed to spend the rest of her life trapped inside a painting, ageing gradually and changing her position in the canvas until she finally disappeared a few years earlier. After Luke's parents are killed in a car accident, Helga becomes Luke's legal guardian and they move to England. While building a treehouse, Luke is approached by a woman he quickly realises is a witch, though he sees through her ruse and escapes, hiding at the top of the tree until his grandmother comes outside and the witch walks away. On Luke's ninth birthday, Helga falls ill with diabetes. Her doctor advises them to spend the summer by the sea.
They stay at a seaside hotel, where Luke meets and befriends a gluttonous but friendly boy, Bruno Jenkins, while getting on the bad side of the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer, after his pet mice frighten a maid who is having an affair with the manager. Also staying at the hotel are a convention of witches, masquerading as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with the Grand High Witch, the all-powerful German-accented leader of the world's witches, attending their annual meeting under the name Eva Ernst.
Luke inadvertently discovers the witches while training his pet mice behind a screen inside the ballroom, where the witches hold their meeting. Ernst unveils her latest weapon: a magic potion to turn children into mice, which they will use on confectionery products in sweet shops and candy stores to be opened using money provided by Ernst. Having already been given chocolate laced with the formula a few hours earlier, Bruno is lured into the room, turns into a mouse and flees. Luke attempts to escape and runs to Helga in their room, but finds her resting after having a dizzy spell. The Grand High Witch then appears, seizing Luke and taking him back to the ballroom (somehow without being spotted), where he is forced to drink a potion, turning him into a mouse, though he avoids being squashed. He finds Bruno and reunites with Helga, who has since recovered.
Luke devises a plan to kill the witches by sneaking into Ernst's room to steal a bottle of the potion. Luke manages to drop the bottle into a pot of cress soup destined for the witches' dinner tables. Mr. Jenkins also orders the soup, though Helga stops him from consuming it at the last minute. As the witches enter the dining room, Miss Irvine, Ernst's assistant who has become disillusioned by her mistress's harsh treatment of her, quits working with the witches and thus gets spared from the massacre that is about to happen. The formula turns all the witches into mice, and the staff and hotel guests join in killing them, unknowingly ridding England of its witches. Mr. Stringer slays Ernst with a meat cleaver as Helga returns Bruno to his parents.
Luke and Helga return to their home, where they are delivered Ernst's trunk full of money and an address book of all witches in the United States. That night, Miss Irvine pays a visit to the house and uses her power to return Luke to his human body and return his pet mice, along with his glasses, before leaving to repeat the process with Bruno.
- Anjelica Huston as Miss Ernst/Grand High Witch
- Jasen Fisher as Luke Eveshim
- Mai Zetterling as Helga Eveshim
- Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Stringer
- Jane Horrocks as Miss Susan Irvine
- Charlie Potter as Bruno Jenkins
- Anne Lambton as Pamela (The Woman in Black)
- Angelique Rockas as Henrietta
- Annabel Brooks as Nicola Cuttle
- Sukie Smith as Marlene
- Bill Paterson as Herbert Jenkins
- Brenda Blethyn as Rebecca Jenkins
- Jenny Runacre as Elizabeth "Elsie"
- Emma Relph as Mildred "Millie"
- Rose English as Doreen "Dora"
- Nora Connolly as Beatrice
- Rosamund Greenwood as Janice
- Darcy Flynn as Luke's mother
- Vincent Marzello as Luke's father
- Ola Otnes as Erica's father
- Jim Carter as Andre the chef
- Roberta Taylor as Jacqueline (chef witch)
- Stella Tanner as Loisette "Lois" Leffour
- Barbara Hicks as Regina
The Witches was adapted from the children's book of the same title by British author Roald Dahl. It was the final film that Jim Henson personally worked on before his death, the final theatrical film produced by Lorimar Productions, and the last film made based on Dahl's material before his death (both Henson and Dahl died that year). The following people did special puppeteer work in this film: Anthony Asbury, Don Austen (Luke and Bruno's mouse forms), Sue Dacre, David Greenaway, Brian Henson, Robert Tygner, and Steven Whitmire.
The early portion of the film was shot in Bergen in Norway. Much of the rest was shot on location in the Headland Hotel situated on the coast in Newquay, Cornwall. During the shoot, Rowan Atkinson caused a Mr. Bean style calamity when he left the bath taps running in his room (the frantically knocking porter was told “go away, I’m asleep”). The flood wrote off much of the production team’s electrical equipment on the floor below. At the time, Huston was dating Jack Nicholson, who would frequently phone the hotel and send huge flower bouquets, much to the excitement of the staff. Director Nicholas Roeg later edited out scenes he thought he would be too scary for children after seeing his young son's reaction to the original cut.
The elaborate makeup effects for Huston's Grand High Witch took six hours to apply, and another six to remove. The prosthetics included a full face mask, hump, mechanized claws, and a withered collarbone. Huston described a monologue scene she had to do where "I was so uncomfortable and tired of being encased in rubber under hot lights for hours that the lines had ceased to make sense to me and all I wanted to do was cry." The green vapor used extensively at the end of the film was oil-based, and would obscure the contacts in Huston's eyes, which had to be regularly flushed out with water by an expert. Roeg chose a sexy costume for the character to wear and emphasized to Huston that the Grand High Witch should have sex appeal at all times, despite her grotesque appearance in certain scenes of the film.
Roald Dahl was incensed that Roeg had changed his original ending in the script. As a gesture of conciliation, Roeg offered to film two versions, the book version where Luke remains a mouse, and the happier version where he is transformed back into a human, before making his final choice. Upon watching the scene loyal to his book, Dahl was so moved that he was brought to tears. However, Roeg decided to go with the changed ending, which led Dahl to demand that his name be removed entirely from the credits, and to threaten a publicity campaign against the film. He was only dissuaded from this on the urging of Jim Henson.