There is something terribly naive about Jack Clayton's film version of the classic Ray Bradbury novel, "Something Wicked This Way Comes." The tale, whose roots extend back 35 years to a short story called "The Black Ferris," is about Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a precocious pair of 13-year-old boys whose apparently idyllic Midwestern small-town life (they regard it as boring) is interrupted by Dark's Pandemonium Carnival, which materializes out of a midnight mist on Halloween.
Apparently nothing much ever happens in Green Town, Ill.--except dreaming, wishing, pining, fantasizing and other "fearful needs of the heart." Mr. Dark has designs on the town's dreams--he wants to turn them into nightmares. Quicker than you can spell "spell," he starts fulfilling the townspeoples' deepest, darkest desires, but inevitably at the cost of souls and sanity.
Will and Jim, who stumble onto Mr. Dark's dastardly deeds, are slowly drawn into the web of evil and only the good heart of Will's father--and the providence of a thunderstorm--can save the night and prevent the children from joining--or being exhibited--in this evil circus.
Director Clayton displayed an evocative skill in "The Innocents," another film with demonic overtones, but in "Something Wicked" he seems to overwhelm the human factor with mood--and suggestive, but not convincing mood, at that. That's not to imply Clayton's interpretation of the story is childish--the themes of good and evil, action and inaction, bonding and isolation are dealt with intelligently and sometimes poetically (Bradbury did this screen adaptation). But the pace is lethargic.
The stolid acting is partly to blame. Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson as Will and Jim display little of the initiative or energy their characters--and ages--demand (especially when they're besieged by a swarm of tarantulas).
British actor Jonathan Pryce is a bit too David Warner-ish as Mr. Dark; he seems oddly unevil, more a malicious bumbler. His first lines are "My name is Mr. Dark, I advise you to respect it," but Pryce never commands the requisite respect. Mr. Dark, who has few apparent deep dark desires of his own, does have a deep dark fear of lightning and thunderstorms, since the first "reveals our dark corners" and the second "washes away our dust." As a result, the storm gathering from the first reel on becomes a vital character, and a reflection of Bradbury's penchant for stylized metaphor.
Jason Robards as Will's father is, surprisingly, the weakest link in "Something Wicked." The character Robards plays, Charles Halloway, is more a grandfather than a fatherfigure, fearful of straining a bad heart; it's a rough situation for a 13-year-old boy. He is also carrying an earlier guilt over the fact that someone else once saved his drowning son. Mr. Dark's promise of renewed youth and a healthy heart must seem promising, but Robards doesn't grab for it--research in the town library shows him the circus has been coming through town since his grandfather's time, and always with evil results. Robards plays his part with more anemia than it requires, almost on the verge of sleep-walking, and his burst of redemptive action at the climax seems curiously hollow.
The "character" parts are similarly non-compelling, the one exception being Royal Dano as Tom Fury, the wily lightning rod salesman who can also foresee the storm.
Production designer Richard MacDonald and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum have managed to duplicate Bradbury's lush prose settings; the result is a mix of the bright, warm hues of Maxfield Parrish and the homely quietudes of Norman Rockwell. But without involving personalities, the set remains a set, and it hardly matters whether "the wrong shall fail, the right prevail." And the special effects are shockingly poor for 1983 (a time-machine carousel is the only effective sequence on that front).
If Bradbury's premise--that fear can be overcome through honest confrontation and a pure heart--is naive, Clayton's turgid interpretation renders it even more so by making the fear not fearful enough and by making the needed courage appear to depend on a chance thunderstorm. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
Directed by Jack Clayton, screenplay and novel by Ray Bradbury; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; music by James Horner; edited by Argyle Nelson and Barry Mark Gordon; visual effects, Lee Dyer. Produced by Peter Vincent Douglas for Walt Disney Productions. This film is rated PG and runs 94 minutes. THE CAST Jason Robards....Charles Halloway Jonathan Pryce....Mr. Dark Diane Ladd....Mrs. Nightshade Pam Grier....Dust Witch Royal Dano....Tom Fury