The Witches (1990 film)

The Witches is a 1990 dark fantasy comedy film directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, and Jasen Fisher, based on the 1983 children's novel of the same title by Roald Dahl. 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.

The Witches
Theatrical release poster
Directed byNicolas Roeg
Produced by
Screenplay byAllan Scott
Based onThe Witches
by Roald Dahl
Music byStanley Myers
CinematographyHarvey Harrison
Edited byTony Lawson
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • May 25, 1990 (1990-05-25) (United States)
  • August 24, 1990 (1990-08-24) (United Kingdom)
Running time
91 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
Box office$15.3 million[2]

The film was produced by Jim Henson Productions for Lorimar Film Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros. as the last theatrical film to be produced by Lorimar, before the company shut down in 1993. The film was well received by critics, but performed poorly at the box office.


During a vacation with his grandmother Helga in Norway, eight 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 pulling up a basket to the treehouse he and his father built, Luke is approached by a woman he quickly realizes is a witch, though he sees through her ruse and escapes. 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 leader of the world's witches, attending their annual meeting under the name Eva Ernst.

Inside the ballroom where the witches hold their meeting, Luke spies upon them as the Grand High Witch unveils her latest creation: 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 her. Having already been given the formula a few hours earlier, Bruno is brought into the room, where he turns into a mouse and flees.

Luke is discovered and runs to Helga in their room, but finds her resting after having a dizzy spell. The Grand High Witch seizes Luke and takes him back to the ballroom, where he is forced to drink a potion, turning him into a mouse, though he avoids being squashed and escapes. He finds Bruno and reunites with Helga, who has since recovered.

The mouse Luke devises a plan to kill the witches by sneaking into Ernst's room to steal a bottle of the potion. He then takes it up to Helga, and first try to get Bruno to his parents, but they don't believe her and Mr. Jenkins calls her a witch and tells her to take the mice away upon scaring Mrs. Jenkins. During the gathering toward the dining hall, the maid who likes Mr. Stringer was making Ernst's bed, and got interested in the perfume she had, until she found the other formula bottles and mistaking it for perfume, dabs it around herself.

Luke manages to drop the bottle into a pot of cress soup destined for the witches' dinner tables. When the maid was getting ready to leave, Mr. Stringer saw the mouse fur on the nape of her neck and backed off from kissing it, and when the maid saw it she was scared and started to squeak, but was left unknown about what happened to her.

Mr. Jenkins also orders the soup, though Helga stops him from consuming it at the last minute, and they finally found out that Bruno was turned into a mouse when he said hello to them. As the witches enter the dining room, Miss Irvine, Ernst's assistant who has become disillusioned by her mistress's harsh treatment of her and banning her from the celebration, quits working with the witches and thus gets spared from what 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. The Grand High Witch herself dies at the hands of Mr. Stringer, and 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.



The Witches was adapted from the children's book of the same title by British author Roald Dahl.[3] 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 (Bruno's mouse form), Sue Dacre, David Greenaway, Brian Henson, Robert Tygner, and Steven Whitmire (Luke's mouse form). The early portion of the film was shot in Bergen in Norway. Much of the rest was shot on location in the Headland Hotel[4] 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.[5] 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.[5]

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.[6]

The elaborate makeup effects for Huston's Grand High Witch took six hours to apply, and another six to remove.[7] 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."[8]

The green vapour 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.[8] 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.[8]

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 before he made his final choice: the book version where Luke remains a mouse, and the happier version where he is transformed back into a human. 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.[9]


The film was slated to be distributed by Lorimar, but when the company dissolved their theatrical distribution operation, it wound up sitting on the shelf for more than a year after filming was completed.[10] The film premiered on May 25, 1990, in London and was scheduled to open the same day in the United States,[10] but following Florida test screenings earlier that year Warner Bros. delayed the American release until August.[10] The film took in $10,360,553 in the United States, and 266,782 in Germany.[11]

Home media

Warner Home Video first released the film on VHS in 1991.[12] The second release (and first re release) was on VHS and for the first time on DVD in 1999. Both versions (and any television screenings) use the original open matte negative of the film, instead of matting it down to 1.85:1 (or 1.66:1). It was released on the Blu ray format in Spain only in 2017.[13] In July 2019, a Blu ray release from Warner Archive Collection was announced, and was released on August 20, 2019.[14]


The film contains an orchestral score composed by Stanley Myers. To date, a soundtrack CD has not been released, and the entire score remains obscure. Throughout the score, the Dies irae appears, highly reminiscent of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique Mvt. V, "The Witches Sabbath".


The Witches was well received by critics and audiences alike, but performed poorly at the box office.[15] The film holds a 97% in the film critics site Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews from 35 critics with an average rating of 7.64/10. Its consensus reads: "With a deliciously wicked performance from Angelica Huston and imaginative puppetry by Jim Henson's creature shop, Nicolas Roeg's dark and witty movie captures the spirit of Roald Dahl's writing like few other adaptations."[16]

Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, calling the film "an intriguing movie, ambitious and inventive, and almost worth seeing just for Anjelica Huston's obvious delight in playing a completely uncompromised villainess."[17] However, Roald Dahl himself regarded the film as "utterly appalling" because of the ending that contrasted with his book.[18]


Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (1991)
BAFTA Awards (1991)
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1991)
Fantasporto (1991)
  • Nominated – International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film (Nicolas Roeg)
Hugo Awards (1991)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1990)
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1990)

See also


  1. "The Witches (PG) (CUT)". British Board of Film Classification. 4 May 1990. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  2. "The Witches (1990)". The Numbers. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  3. "Bewitched, Bothered, Buried Under Latex". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 October 2010.
  4. "The Headland Hotel". The Headland Hotel. Archived from the original on 23 February 2010. Retrieved 24 October 2012.
  5. "History of the Headland Hotel | The Witches Film Location". Retrieved 11 July 2018.
  7. Anjelica Huston (2014). Watch Me. Scribner. p. 198.
  8. Anjelica Huston (2014). Watch Me. Scribner. p. 199.
  9. Louis Jordan (20 August 2015). "Summer of '90: The Witches". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  10. "The Witches: Warner Bros takes Jim Henson's puppet film swan song off the shelf". Cinefantastique. 21: 22. September 1990.
  11. "May 25th, 1990 - May 27th, 1990". Retrieved 31 December 2018.
  12. "Witches VHS". Retrieved 6 February 2019.
  13. The Witches Blu-ray, retrieved 6 February 2019
  14. The Witches Blu-ray, retrieved 28 July 2019
  15. "WEEKEND BOX OFFICE : 'Darkman' Shines Among New Releases". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 January 2011.
  16. "The Witches at Rotten Tomatoes".
  17. Doan, Brian. "Roger Ebert The Witches review".
  18. Bishop, Tom (11 July 2005). "Entertainment | Willy Wonka's everlasting film plot". BBC News.

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