Something Wicked This Way Comes Revisited

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they’re actually any good. In this edition: Walt Disney’s live action adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s brilliant novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes.)

“My dad disappeared on a trip to the Thousand Islands when I was thirteen years old. My father and I had to go home without him.”

I wrote those lines over twenty years ago as the opening of a personal essay called “The Island of Loss and Pancakes,” and while I won’t burden you with the specifics of the tale the gist of it was this. My dad was once a man of vitality with a desire for exploration who’d take me boating, fishing, and camping at every opportunity, and when we weren’t off cruising the St. Lawrence River, we’d be exploring altogether different frontiers with our cutting-edge Commodore 64 computer or the building of a slot-car race track hidden in the ceiling and only accessible via an elaborate system of pulleys. There was always something shared between us, something we could do together or talk about, and then one day among the islands bordering New York and Canada… there wasn’t.

The passage of time and of adulthood in general had taken a toll on him, and while I didn’t understand his regrets and stresses then, the effect they had on me was both immediate and long-lasting. It affected the choices I made going forward, the dreams I pursued and the ones I let pass me by, and to the (already overdue) point of this very article it changed the way I respond to certain types of stories onscreen.

Like the 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“Your torments call us like dogs in the night, and we do feed and feed well.”

I was already a fan of Ray Bradbury’s fictional creations by 1983 and had journeyed with him from a virtual African veldt to the surface of Mars, but Walt Disney’s big-screen adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes was my first experience seeing his imagination brought to life outside of my own. As a kid with an affection for horror, I was doubly excited for the film, and I recall seeing it twice in theaters and many more times on VHS over the next couple of years. I loved its embrace of the darkness, its eerie visuals, its way with words, and the strong friendship at its core. What struck me most however, what stayed with me across the years, was the relationship between an adventurous young boy and a father who by all accounts had given up on being anything more than an observer of the life passing him by.

The film opens with a narrator describing the pull of a crisp October day, his childhood home of Green Town, and of the neighbors who gave him his “first glimpses of the needs of the human heart.” Adults are obsessed with money, women, youth, and the glories of the past, but for young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and his best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) there’s only the laughs, thrills, and excitement of the now. The narrator, an adult Will, recalls his father Charles (Jason Robards) as a man whose “heart was suddenly too old and too tired, and too full of yearning and regrets, and he didn’t know what to do about it.” Charles is a kind man and well-respected about town, but he’s also become limited by his fears and regrets. Will’s rush to defend his father against Jim’s claim that the old man is “afraid” is as familiar to me as the boy’s secret disappointment, and it added a layer to the film that couldn’t have felt more personal had Bradbury peeked into my very soul while writing it.

Something-Wicked-3

A train arrives in the middle of the night, and when the boys sneak out to watch, they notice its engine is without a driver and its passenger cars are devoid of life. Its horn still blares, and when they chase the tracks over the hill they discover that Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival has already been set-up. It’s still eerily empty, though. They visit it the next day and are disappointed at first to see it resembles nothing more than an ordinary carnival, but a closer look reveals the odd effect it’s having on the locals. Their needs and temptations are pulling them into Dark’s grasp, and over the course of the film’s first half, we see where those desires land them. The barber who lusts after women becomes the sideshow’s bearded lady. The elderly teacher who yearns for her beauty and youth is made young again only to immediately go blind. The barman whose heyday as a football star was cut short by the loss of a leg and an arm sees his limbs restored but his body reduced to that of a child.

The boys see too much, including a carousel capable of aging a person forward or backward, and soon Dark is after them with a mysterious witch, a creepy red-haired child, and a nightmarish assault by tarantulas. As the adults fall by the wayside, it comes down to Will’s father to stand between the boys and the fate that Dark has planned for them, but it’s unclear if he’s up to the task. Years prior, Charles watched as young Will splashed in a river, drowning before his eyes, and he was unable to leap in to save his son. Another man had to step forward instead, and it’s that lack of action that has haunted him ever since.

“It’s not what you’ve done that you regret, it’s what you didn’t do.”

My own dad never failed to save me from drowning. In fact, he once leapt into the water to rescue my younger sister who had fallen overboard, losing his favorite sunglasses in the process but not complaining even for a second. He was hit hard though by the loss of the only job he ever knew, not as a librarian like Will’s father, but as an accountant. Subsequent attempts to start his own businesses were allowed to crumble at the first sign of a struggle. Soon he just stopped trying. He settled and, like Charles, seemingly decided that “sometimes a man can learn more from other men’s dreams than he can from his own.” He read books other people had written, he played games other people had programmed, and he stopped dreaming his own dreams altogether.

These are the thoughts that sat with me on many a viewing of the film as a child and a teen, but while it weighed heavily on me throughout culminating in the moment where Will tells his father “I wish you could be happy,” the film always rose back up and left me hopeful and inspired by the time the credits rolled. Dark’s pursuit of the boys leads him to the library where Charles is hiding them, and in the film’s most harrowing scene, the devilish carnival barker tempts the old man with the promise of youth. He rips pages from a book with increasing intensity, and with the glowing tear of each page Charles grows weaker and weaker. He never breaks though, and instead succeeds in refusing Dark’s offer for another chance at life. The price of that bravado is “a taste of death” as he takes Charles’ hand, breaks it in grotesque fashion, and teases him with the void that awaits him. Dark takes the boys back to the carnival with plans on reverting Will back to infancy and luring Jim into his fold, but Charles follows and once again faces the cold reminder of a death growing increasingly closer with each passing day.

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