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The thing that breaks Charles free of his despair, the thing that should have made 13, 14, 15-year old me shake my head in disgust at its cheesiness, is the sincere uttering of three simple words. Will yells “I love you” to his dad, and the spell is broken as the words are spoken. It’s an earned reunion, one that both actors sell with visible emotion and relief, and they follow it up with the realization that defeating Dark and saving Jim means letting go of despair and celebrating their joy instead. Again, it should have been silly, especially to a boy already mature enough to have seen naked breasts onscreen when his favorite aunt took him to see Stripes without realizing there would be such things projected to the size of VW Bugs, but it instead left me devastated and restored each and every time. Will’s disappointment and anger towards his father disappeared with a simple admission, but as much as the scene satisfied me as a viewer, it was years before I could fully take the lesson to heart.

Even if I hadn’t shared in Will’s issues with his father, the film always spoke to me in regard to friendship as well. I was the toe-headed kid in glasses while my friends had no such impairments, and like Will, I watched as those friends developed an active interest in more touchable partners before I followed suit. (See the previous description of me as a toe-headed kid in glasses…) Seeing Will grow perturbed by Jim’s prurient desires distracting them from adventure was a familiar feeling, but so was seeing the pair come back together as if nothing could hold them apart for long. Dark’s attempts to splinter the pair by bribing them with adulthood and all the experience and power that comes with it was ultimately little more than a temporary distraction and no real threat to their friendship. It’s a fantasy, but it’s one I happily bought into at the time with the friends I knew would always be there and who I no longer see.

Does It Hold Up?

Absolutely, with a couple caveats. Watching it recently as both an adult and a film critic, there are two areas that are less effective now than they were then. The first is simply an issue of time’s passage and technology’s improvements as the film’s special effects bear the unmistakable glare of hand-drawn “electricity” and early ’80s opticals. The practical work, from Dark’s decaying form to the boy’s severed head, are still aces though. The second area lacking to my older and wiser eyes is the ending, which feels rushed and jumbled. If Twitter was around back then, I expect it would have been filled with rumors and reports of re-shoots and editing room mayhem, but as it stands, I’ll simply have to assume such things.

Every other aspect of it remains strong and effective, from its capturing of childhood’s tastes and smells to the ruminations on mortality and regret. It’s a reminder of when kids movies were about more than farts and wise-cracking animals, and its visuals retain their power to unsettle and unnerve. No kids movie these days would feature a shot of the child’s own bloodied and severed head in a guillotine basket. Dark and company’s slow parade down main street lacks graphic thrills, but it’s a terrifying stroll all the same, complete with child-sized coffins. And did I already mention that tarantula scene? Eesh.

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There’s also my increased awareness of the players involved including, director Jack Clayton, whose The Innocents is an even more effective chiller, and the presence of Pam Grier as the Dust Witch. The tale also bore a clear inspiration on other favorites of mine, from Stephen King’s Needful Things to Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (by way of Dark’s swirling arm tattoos as narrative tools).

As for whether or not it holds up in the areas where it most affected me as a child and teenager, the answer is yes. My dad returned several years after I first lost him, and while he never quite regained that adventurous spirit or roaring ambition, he appeared to have made peace with himself. Like Charles fighting despair and darkness with laughter at the end of the film, my dad remembered the value in being joyful and goofy. Sure, much of what we joke about is the fact that he’s a fan of Fox News, but progress is progress. Watching the film now, I appreciate Bradbury’s language and the craftsmanship behind the production, but I also connect with the entire journey, both the dark and the light, both the loss and the eventual triumph over evil. The lasting “gift” from that time, the element that first appeared with my viewings of Something Wicked This Way Comes, is that to this day the surest way for a film to bring me to tears isn’t through a sad death or romantic tragedy. It’s in the appearance of a grown man, a father, feeling weak and helpless before the ones he loves.

“He’d made a memory that would live as long as sons tell sons about fathers they love,” says the adult Will about his father as the film fades to black. I don’t have a son of my own, but watching the film again is a reminder that I shouldn’t wait to tell my dad that I love him. And yes, that I’d love him even more if he turned the channel over to CNN once in a while.

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