In 1983, Roald Dahl released his dark fairytale, The Witches. The book was relatively popular, but it wasn't until Jim Henson and director Niclas Roeg brought it to the big screen in 1990 that people truly appreciated how terrifying and dark it was.
The movie featured Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, whose plan is to turn all children into mice. A young boy overhears the witches discussing the plan at a convention, and they test out the formula on him first. The boy must fight against the witches with some help from the hotel manager, played by Rowan Atkinson and other friends. The movie was, frankly, terrifying, and I could never look at Anjelica Huston the same way again.
While a lot of us know the movie, here are some things you probably did not know from on set!
1. Anjelica Huston Hated The Makeup
In an interview with TV3, Huston revealed that the makeup took seven hours to put on and five hours to take off.
“Mercifully, I wasn’t in it for the whole movie—only for about two or three weeks,” she said, “but they were arduous weeks. I had fake hands. The tips of my fingers acted as knuckles and it took at least an hour to take it off, so it was a bit problematic going to the bathroom.”
However, the supervisor of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, John Stephenson, says Huston was hesitant to don the makeup after an unpleasant experience in a prior movie.
"[She] was worried about getting under all that makeup again.” Stephenson said. “It’s not pleasant to be covered in latex. But she put up with it extremely well. She was very professional.”
2. The Hotel Knows Some Secrets
The Witches was set in a vacation resort, but they shot it at a now-historical hotel in England. The website still has trivia about production, which talks about how Huston's then-boyfriend Jack Nicholson used to send her roses every day. Apparently the girls on the switchboard were also so excited when he would call to talk to Huston.
They also recalled how Rowan Atkinson left a bath running while he slept, and it flooded the entire ground floor of the hotel, including the production office.
3. Huston Loves Scaring Kids
Huston has long referred to her role as Grand High Witch “one of the roles I hold dearest.” In 2004, Huston found out that one of her friend's daughter was planning on watching The Witches with some friends. Huston decided to dress up in purple makeup, with Grand High Witch hair, and sneak in to scare the kids.
“I opened the door and said [putting on her sinister, vaguely European, Grand High Witch voice], ‘Thank you for inviting me!’ ... I got them all screaming. It was good. There’s nothing better than making children scream, I have to say.”
4. The Book and Movie End Differently
In Dahl's original book, the mouse boy didn't have a name as the story was told in first person. The book ends with the narrator saying “I'll be a very old mouse and you'll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we'll both die together."
However, in the movie, the boy's name is Luke and the ending was switched out because Roeg and Henson decided it was too dark. They added in the character of Miss Irvine, a "good witch", who uses her powers to transform Luke back into a boy.
5. Dahl Didn't Like The Changes
Stephen Roxburgh, editor for The Witches, has spoken at lengths about editing the book to fit the movie. Roxburgh says Dahl was very stubborn about changing the book. The movie was originally titled War on Witches, but Roxburgh was looking to "soften" the story. Roxburgh and Dahl butted heads on the negative portrayal of witches, and changing a lot of Dahl's British slang into more American terms. What they did agree on, however, was keeping Luke a mouse at the end of the story.
Which leads to...
6. There Were Two Endings Filmed
Both endings, Luke becoming a boy versus him staying a mouse, were filmed for The Witches. Jim Henson’s manager, Bernie Brillstein, suggested the alternatives, and Henson decided to let the people decide. He gathered groups of people over the course of a few months and sought out their opinions. But Henson was careful to respect Dahl's work.
“Roald’s ending works wonderfully and is obviously the best. However, a film is quite different from a written story and, for a number of reasons, we think that the new ending might work better in the movie … We will only make the change if testing shows that the audiences prefer it.”
In the end, audiences preferred the ending where Luke became a boy again.
7. Dahl Cried When He Saw The Ending
“Nic Roeg showed us the first ending, and Roald had tears running down his cheeks, he was so pleased,” Dahl’s widow, Liccy, told The Telegraph. “But then he showed us the other one, and Roald said: ‘Take my name off this thing. You’ve missed the whole point of the book.’ I'd never seen him so upset.”
“The boy is happy as a mouse,” he wrote to Henson. “He tells us so. And there is a fair bit of elementary philosophy in it, too. What, after all, is so marvelous about being a human? Mice are far happier. They have far less worries.”
8. Three Sizes Of Mice Were Used
The “A size” was the size of a mouse, “B size” was cable controlled, and “C size” was a large hand puppet.
“We had to shoot it in such a way that this gigantic mouse still had to look like it was only two-inches big," Jim Henson said. "It was complicated to do that as it meant whenever we were shooting this we needed to have very large pieces of scenery to keep it in scale, but at the same time, this version of the mouse is most expressive.”
9. The Book Was Banned
The American Library Associations 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list for the 90s had Dahl's The Witches listed at #22. The book was banned for misogyny, as Dahl says men can't be witches.
"I do not wish to speak badly about women," the author writes. "Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male... both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH."