It’s funny, only a select few of filmmakers have truly
impacted me more than I can ever imagine.
Aside from the obvious names in the industry, one filmmaker in
particular, to me, truly epitomizes the word “Storyteller”. And that director is Nicolas Roeg.
For my next three articles, I want to focus on three films
directed by Roeg. These films are
haunting, frightening, funny, romantic and just plain great in all facets of
their production. While they may not be
perfect (what film is?), they truly stand the test of time, which, for any
film, is a compliment in and of itself.
The first film I want to discuss is quite possibly the most
frightening film I saw as a child and also the first Roeg film I had the
pleasure of watching. I am talking about
Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story The Witches.
The first time I saw The Witches was when I went to some
classmate’s birthday party in grade one.
While I don’t remember the entire film, I definitely remember one of its
most haunting moments: the little girl who was abducted by a witch and
imprisoned in a painting. Aside from
being one of the most imaginative scenarios in modern cinema, the way in which
Roeg executes the scene is nothing short of masterful. The way in which the girl’s parents in the
frame gradually realize that their daughter is “living” in the painting on the
wall, all the while the audience notices that something is different about the
painting, but can’t quite put their finger on it… this is classic Hitchcock infused
suspense here, folks.
The creepy English house tucked away in the forest where
Luke lives with his grandmother Helga, the subtly imposing hotel where the
witches congregate, young Helga’s sleepy European town shown in flashbacks…
these all make up the film’s wonderfully off-kilter set design. Just by watching one of his films, it becomes
abundantly clear that Roeg is a master at creating a sense of comfort or unease
(even at the same time) through the vital, yet often times underestimated,
execution of art direction. The Witches,
however, is the most delicious example of Roeg’s cinematic prowess.
The acting… well, what more can be said? Angelica Huston absolutely owns the role of
the Grand High Witch. She found the
perfect mixture of menace and class, all the while chewing the scenery in a
most elegant fashion. She’s a master of
her craft and it definitely shines through here. And who else can be better as a highstrung
hotel manager than a pre-Mr. Bean Rowan Atkinson? He’s a perfect foil for Luke and the Grand
High Witch and produces some well deserved moments of humor without coming off
forced or obligatory.
The Witches is also, sadly, remembered as being the last
film on Jim Henson’s impressive filmography, as Jim Henson Studios supplied the
film’s memorable make-up and practical effects.
Who can forget the moment in which the Grand High Witch peeled off her
face and revealed that vile creature underneath? Or when Luke first realizes that he’s been
turned into a mouse?
All of the aforementioned facets of The Witches come
together under the watchful eye of director Nicolas Roeg. His previous experience in the field of
cinematography definitely shines through from the very first frame and it makes
for a much more visually appealing and visceral experience. He also has an unorthodox method in which to
capture certain scenarios, which results in a very dream-like mise-en-scene
grounded firmly in a unique sense of reality.
From the very beginning, Roeg establishes the world with which the story
takes place; so when the situation of the characters inevitably gets out of
hand, the audience isn’t completely inundated with a sense of unnecessary
fantasy. It’s all part of the story Roeg
is telling and we buy everything he shows us.
In my eyes, Roeg is one of the very few filmmakers who can expertly
juggle fantasy with reality, without making one seem mundane and the other
Roeg’s films have made a lasting impact on me, the likes of
which I haven’t noticed until now. He
knows how to tell an enthralling story, regardless of how grotesque or
frightening it may seem, and make it something wholly original and strangely
human. In my humble opinion, The
Witches stands as his most underrated, yet most effective, work.