Disney’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” 40 years later…


Adapted by my favorite author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his 1962 novel, the 1983 movie of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was a troubled production. I heard this firsthand from no less than Ray Bradbury himself at San Diego Comic Con 2005. There were reported disagreements with director Jack Clayton (1974’s “The Great Gatsby”), and despite his writing the screenplay himself, Bradbury said there were changes made during production for which he didn’t approve. However, Bradbury also conceded that the finished film wasn’t so bad, after all. For this column, I’m ignoring such behind-the-scenes drama in lieu of the onscreen variety.

The lightning rod salesman “Tom Fury” (Royal Dano), a victim in the book who is an unsung hero of the movie adaptation.

Both the book and movie capture Ray Bradbury’s love of autumn and his fascination with the magic of carnivals.  Bradbury famously said the more benign inspiration for “Mr. Dark” came from a carnival magician named “Mr. Electrico,” who once told an impressionable, 12-year old Bradbury to “Live forever!” Good advice, thought the young Bradbury, who did his best to adhere to Mr. Electrico’s commandment, surviving multiple health crises to reach the age of 91. The book was part of Bradbury’s “Green Leaf, Illinois” story cycle (“Dandelion Wine,” “Mars is Heaven”); a fictional chronicling inspired by Bradbury’s early boyhood in Illinois, before his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 14.

For this retrospective, I’ll note relevant changes between the book and movie in the synopsis portion of this review, but my primary focus will be the movie, not the book (which is also worth seeking out, as are all of Bradbury’s works). I was originally going to review this film in June, but the onset of fall just felt more right, somehow…

“Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983)

The movie opens with narration from an adult Will Halloway (Arthur Hill), fondly recalling a late October afternoon in mid-century Green Leaf, Illinois, where his younger self (Vidal Peterson) and best friend, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) encountered eccentric lightning rod salesman Tom Fury (Royal Dano). The wide-eyed Fury warns the boys of the danger from a coming storm.  So convincing is Fury’s sales pitch that Jim decides to buy one of Fury’s rods for his own home, which he shares with his single mother (Diane Ladd), who was abandoned by Jim’s father. Young Jim has trouble dealing with his father’s absence, so he prefers to imagine him off on imaginary safaris, or other adventures. With the kindly Fury lowering his asking price for the boy, a sale is made.

Wide-eyed lightning rod salesman Tom Fury (Royal Dano) makes a dramatic sales pitch to a gullible Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) and his less-impressionable best friend Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson).

Note: Tom Fury is played by lanky character actor Royal Dano (1922-1994), who had a long career in film and TV playing small, but memorable supporting roles. Usually cast as a Buddy Ebsen-type, Dano took a surreal turn as a latter-day ‘grim reaper’ in 1983’s space race saga “The Right Stuff,” as well as other roles in Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery” (“I’ll Never Leave You”) and the 1956 film of “Moby Dick,” which was adapted from the Herman Melville classic by…Ray Bradbury, who took a rare crack at adapting another author’s work with that screenplay. 

Jim and Will, freed from their extracurricular captivity onto the idyllic streets of Green Leaf, Illinois; a fictitious small town used in many Ray Bradbury stories as a stand-in for his own birthplace of Waukegan, Illinois. 

We later see the two boys, who were born a minute apart on Halloween, getting into the usual school mischief—whispering and passing notes in class—much to the ire of their teacher, Ms. Foley (Mary Grace Canfield).  It was said that Ms. Foley was once the most beautiful woman in town, but to her students, she’s just a craggily-faced crone; a fact of which she’s reminded through their cruel drawings.  For their misbehavior, ‘whisperers’ Jim and Will are given a brief after-school detention before being dismissed…

Note: Ms. Foley’s fate in the film and movie differ only slightly.  In the book, Foley is transformed by Mr. Dark into a blind young girl. However, the film sees Foley transformed into a blind young woman.  Like Royal Dano, actress Mary Grace Canfield (1924-2014) had a long career in character roles in TV and film, often parlaying her unconventional looks for guest-starring roles in TV comedies, such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Green Acres,” and “Bewitched.”  

Ed (James Stacy), Charles (Jason Robards) and Doc Douglas (Jack Dodson) talk football and regrets at Green Leaf’s corner watering hole.

At the corner bar we meet Will’s father, Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), the town librarian; an academic man aging before his time. We see other colorful locals, including double-amputee bartender Ed (James Stacy), who was once the town’s football hero before war terminated that prospect.  We’re then introduced to Dr. Douglas (Jack Dodson), who urges Charles to take better care of himself for the sake of his young son. And Mr. Tetley (Jake Dengel), who dreams of winning big someday. There’s also town barber, Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), a middle-aged bachelor who dreams of beautiful, exotic women from far-away places.  Green Leaf is a town populated with unfulfilled dreamers and many regrets…perfect pickings for a dark carnival of misery-miners.

Note: Actor Jim Stacy (1936-2016) was a real-life double amputee who lost his left leg and left arm in a 1973 motorcycle accident where he was hit by a drunk driver.  In the crash, Stacy’s girlfriend at the time was also killed. Stacy would adapt his career to accommodate his injuries with roles in “Just a Little Inconvenience” (1977) and “Posse” (1975).  The actor was also the ex-husband of actresses Connie Stevens and Kim Darby (who costarred in TOS Star Trek’s “Miri” as well as the original 1969 film of “True Grit”).  As a former motorcyclist who was also hit by a drunk driver nearly 30 years ago, I consider myself very fortunate to be alive and in good enough health to write this column for you today. 

Awake with a sense of late-night restlessness, Charles and Will share a heart-to-heart.

As a mysterious man named “Mr. Dark” (Jonathan Pryce) tosses flyers into the autumn wind advertising for a carnival, a sense of curiosity and anticipation follows…while Charles feels a deep foreboding, instead. We later see Charles at home with his wife (Ellen Geer) and his son, Will.  Later that night, Charles confesses his regret for not being a younger, more active father for his son, while Will assures him it’s okay.  Realizing the lateness of the hour, they each decide to turn in.

Note: The relationship in the movie between Charles and Will seems warmer than what was evidenced in the earlier half of the book, where the elder Halloway felt more emotionally distant until the events of the book changed him into a heroic figure.  There is some of that in the script, but the actors share a father-son chemistry that can’t be denied.  Ellen Geer (“Mrs. Halloway”) is well known to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans as ‘Dr. Marr’ in the episode “Silicon Avatar.”  She is also the daughter of actors Will Geer (“The Waltons”) and Herta Ware (“Cocoon”). Herta Ware (1917-2005) also played Jean-Luc Picard’s mother (via flashbacks) in the Star Trek: TNG episode, “Where No One Has Gone Before.” 

Tom Fury gazes longingly as the frozen form of the seductive Dust Witch (Pam Grier).
I’m guessing Tom just recharged his own lightning rod…

While the rest of the town sleeps, Will and Jim (who live across from each other) hear a late-night train roaring into town—it’s the carnival.  There is a sense of magic in the air, as strange manifestations begin to take place within Green Leaf.  As old Tom Fury shuffles sleeplessly through the deserted streets in the predawn hours, he peers into an undertaker’s window, where he sees the apparition of a beautiful woman (Pam Grier) lying in what appears to be an icy tomb.  When he looks again, she’s gone. This is the Dust Witch; a permanent member of the troupe of performers belonging to “Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival,” Green Leaf’s latest arrivals…

Note: Major cinematic liberties are taken with the character of the Dust Witch. In the book, she is a blind soothsayer who travels in balloons to mark the houses of those townsfolk Mr. Dark has chosen for his own brand of damnation. The movie restores the Dust Witch’s sight and seriously amps up her sex appeal in the voluptuous form of Pam Grier (“Scream Blacula Scream,” “Coffy” “Jackie Brown”). Gone is her balloon and other tricks of her trade; this Dust Witch doesn’t need them—her allure is magic enough.

“Hey, never mind that this is a creepy, disturbing, evil carnival impossibly set up over a single night—there’s free kettle corn!”

The next morning, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival is up and running—set up entirely overnight.  Nearly the entire town is in attendance, with little-to-none of the apprehension felt by some the previous evening. Naturally, Will and Jim are there too.  The townsfolk partake in various free offers and easily won ‘prizes’ to entice them.  Mr. Tetley wins a free Ferris wheel ride, which he eagerly shares with a mysterious, beautiful woman—the Dust Witch in her human guise.  When the ride is over, Tetley’s seat is empty.  Bartender Ed sees his reflection in a mysterious mirror that shows him whole again, before he too, disappears. Emerging from the House of Mirrors, Mrs. Foley appears somewhat dazed and disoriented when she encounters her two classroom ‘whisperers’ once again.  Lonely bachelor Crosetti attends an exotic, adults-only show of veiled dancers, who swarm and surround him—much to his audible joy and arousal.  The boys get a peek at this show through a hole in the tent, but are scared off by a dwarf…

Mr. Tetley (Jake Dengel) learns there’s no such thing as a free ride, especially when seductive Pam Grier is used as bait…

Note: Some of the goings-on in this sequence, particularly the seduction of the ridiculously horny Mr. Crosetti by the exotic dancers, clearly showed early 1980s Disney trying to forge ahead into more adult-ish material. It was around this time Disney formed Buena Vista productions, which made the 1984 mermaid comedy “Splash,” wherein actress Daryl Hannah bared her bottom for the cause. In this nascent form, we see Disney building bridges towards the larger, monopolistic entertainment empire they are today.  For context, the R-rated “ALIEN” franchise is now technically under the Disney big top, thanks to their merger with the label formerly known as 20th Century Fox. 

Yes, Mr. Dark creeps them out, but…free tickets.
The boys meet the mysterious “Mr. Dark” (Jonathan Pryce) and his burly assistant, Mr. Cooger (Bruce M. Fischer). 

Jim and Will catch fleeting glimpses of these strange goings-on, just before they sneak into a carousel that’s curiously not open to the public. As they do, they are quickly nabbed for trespassing by the burly, formidable carnival worker named Mr. Cooger (Bruce M. Fischer), who introduces them to Mr. Dark, the mysterious, black-clad man with a British accent who seems unusually forgiving of the boys’ trespass, despite his clear suspicion of them both. He even offers them free tickets to return. The boys also notice curious tattoos on Mr. Dark’s forearms…

Note: Mr. Dark’s tattoos are, of course, an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories told under the framing story of his 1951 book “The Illustrated Man” (later adapted into a 1969 film). The inspiration for the evil Mr. Dark (a role Bradbury initially wanted for actor Christopher Lee) came from a more benign source—the carnival magician “Mr. Electrico” who (as mentioned above) famously commanded the 12-year old Bradbury to “Live forever!”  Actor Jonathan Pryce was a relative unknown at this early stage in his career (he was only in his mid-30s during production), but has since gone onto many memorable roles, including “Brazil” (1985), “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003), among countless others.

The secret to how actors keep their youthful looks—Disney’s magic age-reversing carousel. 

Not content with Mr. Dark’s attempt to bribe them into silence over what they’d seen that afternoon, the boys return to the carnival later that night, and once again sneak into the closed-off tent containing the carousel. They watch from a well-concealed hiding place, as Mr. Cooger gets onto one of the carousel horses and rides it backward—regressing in age, as the ride goes round and round.  Eventually, the carousel stops, and Mr. Cooger exits as a ginger-haired, evil-faced little boy (Brendan Klinger), who is now younger than either Will or Jim.  After witnessing that demonic sight, the boys get the hell out of there and run back into town…

Note: Brendan Klinger, who plays the younger version of Mr. Cooger, is truly terrifying without ever saying a word. The child actors in this movie are unusually well cast, on a par with the genius youth casting of Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” (1986). It’s also worth noting that the de-aging carousel effect is done entirely with doubles playing the progressively younger versions of Cooger, combined with good old-fashioned optical effects work (CGI was still a rarely-used gimmick at this point; see 1982’s “TRON” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”). 

I’ll call him…mini-Cooger (Brendan Klinger).

As they race back into town, the boys see ‘mini-Cooger’ in the window of their teacher Ms. Foley.  Feeling the instinctive need to warn her about her nocturnal ‘visitor’ they knock and she answers.  The boys then concoct a flimsy excuse for their being there so late.  As mini-Cooger glares at the boys through the doorway, Ms. Foley introduces him as her “visiting nephew.” With no rational way to warn Ms. Foley about her ‘nephew’, the boys are forced to leave when mini-Cooger exits the front door and menacingly spooks Jim and Will into running off…

Note: Seriously…that eerie kid could scare a decorated Green Beret.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall…”

Inside her home, we see Ms. Foley gaze longingly into the mirror, wishing hard for her lost youth and beauty (“Please!”).  With mini-Cooger at her side, Ms. Foley’s wish of vanity comes true, as she transforms back into a beautiful young blonde woman in her early 20s (Sharan Lea).  Shortly after her transformation, a strange blue light glows in her eyes, and the young Ms. Foley is blinded. Stumbling around her house, the terrified Ms. Foley screams for help, as her ‘nephew’ watches her struggle with a smug grin on his evil, freckled face…

Note: Actress Sharan Lea, who plays the young Ms. Foley, only has a few credits to her brief acting career, which included the cult 1985 martial arts movie, “Gymkata.”  My only nit with her casting in this film is that there is no possible way this young woman could age into actress Mary Grace Canfield. Perhaps Lea is playing an idealized, flattering version of how Foley remembers herself…? 

Considering the fate that befell Tom Fury in Bradbury’s book? I’d say a little shock treatment from Mr. Dark is getting off light…

The boys try to make sense of what they’ve just seen, which quickly devolves into an argument between them when Will realizes Jim is tempted to use Dark’s carousel to become a man; an irrational impulse fueled by his jealousy of Will being a minute older than himself (boy logic; don’t ask).  As they sneak back into the carnival, they see Mr. Dark torturing a captured Tom Fury for information on a coming storm. Fury is strapped into an electric chair, but refuses to talk—even after the Dust Witch coos seductively in his ear.  When they are spotted in the tent, the boys make a run for it…

Note: In Bradbury’s original book, the character of Tom Fury was transformed into an insane dwarf by Mr. Dark. However, the movie’s Tom Fury is a more heroic figure who resists torture and dramatically pierces the heart of the Dust Witch with one of his lightning rods during the film’s climax (keeping his height in the process). This is another one of the movie’s changes I can live with, since Fury’s character and eventual fate both felt a bit pointless in the book. Besides, it wouldn’t be a  proper Disney adaptation without a happier ending for ol’ Tom, right? 

Will listens as his father Charles confesses his guilt for not being able to save him from a swimming mishap several years earlier. Despite the film’s spectacle and atmosphere, it’s these quieter scenes that define these characters.

The boys each run back to their respective homes, right across from one another.  Will tiptoes in to find his restless father still awake, and hoping to finish their conversation from the previous night. Charles deeply regrets not being able to save Will when he nearly drowned at a nearby lake several years earlier. Jim’s now-absentee father had to pull Will out of the water—something the older, weaker Charles couldn’t do. Worrying that his age is interfering with his effectiveness as a father, a melancholy Charles doesn’t realize he’s scaring his son, who pleads with his dad not to “talk death.”  With that point taken, Charles wishes his son a good night, and they go to bed…

Note: It’s in these quieter moments where the characters truly come alive in this fantasy film. I wonder if we’d still see such moments if the film were remade today…?

Because young Jim’s ordeal at the Carnival wasn’t quite traumatic enough, he comes home to find his mother (Diane Ladd) dancing with a stranger—there’s an image to help a kid get to sleep.

Meanwhile, Jim arrives home as well, ready to tell his mother about his terrifying after-hours ordeal at Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival, but he realizes she’s not alone; Jim finds his mother dancing in the arms of a strange man—shattering any illusions that his father will come home someday.

Note: Diane Ladd, mother of actress Laura Dern (1993’s “Jurassic Park,” 2017’s “The Last Jedi”), also costarred in such classic films as Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974).

Get the flamethrower…

As Will and Jim eventually get to sleep, they experience a shared nightmare about their bedrooms being overrun by hordes of crawling tarantulas.  The tarantulas crawl on the floors, the walls, and even on their beds. There is no sanctuary to be had from these eight-legged invaders in their rooms. Eventually their shared nightmare is broken when a bolt of lightning on Jim’s rooftop is safely absorbed by Tom Fury’s lightning rod. The boys awaken screaming, as they realize Mr. Dark is coming for them now.  The nightmare was a warning that they’re not safe; not even in their own beds

Note: The spider nightmare sequence of this movie was a cost-effective replacement for the book’s Dust Witch’s hot-air balloon, which was sent to look for the boys and mark their rooftops. The lower cost spider sequence is far scarier, and extremely well-executed, predating Disney’s spider-fest “Arachnophobia” by seven years.  Using occasional rubber spiders mixed with plenty of real ones, as well as judicious editing, the sequence works very well.  It doesn’t hurt that the music cues for this sequence are similar to those used by composer James Horner for 1986’s “ALIENS.” Horner was a last-minute replacement for this film after the original composer was fired, but his music delivers just the right mood and energy.  His list of credits includes “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” “Cocoon,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic” among many, many others.  Sadly, the Oscar-winning James Horner died in a private plane crash in 2015. The loss to future film musical scores is incalculable.

Mr. Dark’s collections of musical clowns and assorted sideshow attractions would creep out Captain Spaulding…

The next day, the boys have gone missing and an impromptu parade of Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium players (clowns, sideshow attractions, etc), let by Dark himself, roams the streets…advertising and searching at the same time. Standing on a corner near the bar, a worried Charles spots Will and Jim hiding under a grate in a storm drain, right below his feet.  Sensing their fear, Charles manages to keep his composure as the ominous Mr. Dark approaches. Dark then introduces himself to the town librarian, and rolls up his sleeves to show Charles matching tattooed likenesses of Will and Jim.  He then asks Charles if he knows these boys, who have yet to collect their valuable ‘prizes’ from his carnival. Chomping distractedly on his cigar, Charles bluffs badly, giving a pair of false names.  Naturally, Dark senses the lie, and he clenches his fist in silent rage, as drops of blood spill through his fingers onto Will’s cheek below.  The boys are marked for death.  

The connection between father and son.

Knowing he’ll have his quarry in the end, Mr. Dark marches onward… the brassy parade music shifting from the usual carnival fare to a somber funereal dirge.  With Mr. Dark led away, Charles realizes the two runaways are in serious danger.  He reaches through the grate and clutches his son’s fingers, telling the boys to meet him in the library that evening, after closing…

Note: That moment of Charles clutching his son’s fingertips through the grate gives the boy silent assurance.  It’s a little moment, but it speaks to the lengths Charles will ultimately go through to protect Will and Jim.  While he couldn’t save Will from nearly drowning at the lake several years earlier, Charles will now save him during a far more important struggle—the struggle for his son’s soul, and the town of Green Leaf itself.

Charles shows Will and Jim how my generation and countless others searched for information in those bygone days before the internet

Later that night at the library, the runaways have temporary refuge as Charles goes through the town’s records with them.  There is evidence of past visitations to Green Leaf from a collection of mysterious beings who seem to prey on the misery of the locals. These strangers came to be known as “the autumn people.”  These ‘stories’ have since devolved into folklore, but Charles remembers his own father tackling this same menace when he was younger.  Charles and the boys soon realize they have visitors in the library and the boys quickly spread out—hiding atop the tall book racks. Charles, quoting from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” murmurs with knowing dread, “By the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes…”

Note: This library revelation scene is very similar to a scene in Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It,” which also saw its protagonists learning about the true nature of a cyclical menace that returns every so often to prey on their township.  Charles’ identification of “the autumn people” is very similar to the grownup “Loser’s Club” learning the truth of the evil “Pennywise” (just one of ‘It’s’ many manifestations).  Of course, countless books and movies prior to the internet featured such revelatory scenes taking place in libraries (duh, right?), but the fact that both “Something Wicked…” and “It” uncover a psychic, supernatural menace that preys on the emotional states of a small town at a specific time/season feels a bit too on the nose to be coincidental.  Both entities also use clowns and other carnival trappings to lure victims, too. Either way, one can hardly blame Stephen King for being inspired by Ray Bradbury.

A frustrated and even desperate Mr. Dark offers Charles his youth back for the measly sum of his immortal soul.

Mr. Dark is in the library, and Charles identifies he and his ilk as “the autumn people.” With the pretenses dropped, Mr. Dark seeks a Faustian bargain with the librarian in exchange for his soul. He’ll grant Charles he wants most—his restored youth and vigor.  Leafing through a nearby book, Mr. Dark offers those years back to Charles, decade by decade—ripping pages out, as each offer expires. Charles resists, but he’s rendered unconscious, as Mr. Dark and his henchmen capture the boys…

Note: The gravely-voiced Jason Robards (1922-2000) is perfectly cast as the timeworn librarian Charles Halloway. Robards also played gruff, no-nonsense former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in 1976’s “All the President’s Men” (which really should’ve won the Best Picture Oscar, in my humble opinion). “All the President’s Men” is one of the best movies about journalism ever made, as well as a riveting chronicle of the real-life constitutional crisis that resulted from the attempted burglary of Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate hotel in June of 1972.  Of course, these days such constitutional crises are an almost-hourly occurrence, but the movie is still a gold standard. 

Has anything good EVER come from a Hall of Mirrors in a horror/fantasy movie…?

Regaining consciousness, Charles rushes to the carnival as a ferocious lightning storm approaches the town. Along the way, he encounters Mrs. Nightshade, who’s looking for Jim. Charles warns her away, not wanting to risk her becoming tempted by Mr. Dark’s trickery.  He then enters the Hall of Mirrors, where he encounters only his reflections and the sounds of Mr. Dark’s taunting in the fog-shrouded maze… 

Note: If I had a criticism of the movie’s story construction it’s that there isn’t greater specificity regarding Mr. Dark’s concern with the approaching lightning storm.  While we see Mr. Dark manipulate electricity in his torture of Tom Fury, we aren’t really made to understand exactly why he’s so concerned over this storm. We infer the lightning will be some sort of divine undoing of Mr. Dark’s evil shenanigans (and it is), but it’s never made clear why he fears it so much. I’m guessing there might’ve been a deleted scene in this admittedly troubled production that helped better illustrate that connection (?).

“Try Viagra today…”
The Dust Witch helps sweeten Mr. Dark’s seductive offer of youth.

Once again, Mr. Dark trots out his earlier offer of restored youth, and even uses the Dust Witch to sweeten the deal a bit, but Charles’ will holds.  He then hears Will’s voice…

Note: I think many would’ve been okay with just Pam Grier, but sure, movie. Whatever you say…

A summer day at the river a few years earlier almost turned into a fatal nightmare for the Halloway family.

Flashing back to that summer day on the river, Charles sees his young son flailing in the water. But this time something is different.  Charles now hears Will telling him that he loves him. Will repeats those words with all his might, as the strength of love between a father and his son shatters the fragile grip of Mr. Dark seduction attempts. Charles finds Will in the maze of mirrors, and they embrace

Note: The flashbacks to the river and Will’s near-drowning reinforce my longtime belief that sometimes the worst events of our lives happen on the most idyllic and lovely days (i.e, the cloudless blue morning over New York City on September 11th, 2001).  It seems some of the most horrible memories I’ve experienced often occurred under blue skies and singing birds…

The movie makes a hero out of Tom Fury, who drives a charged lightning rod through the Dust Witch.

Love not only shatters Mr. Dark’s seduction attempt, but it drains him of power as well.  Those held by him, including Tom Fury, are now freed.  Tom valiantly enters the Hall of Mirrors carrying one of his now-charged lightning rods, which he drives into the cold heart of the Dust Witch. 

Note: Once again, I applaud the movie for giving the ending an extra hero with the eccentric Tom Fury, who deserved a better fate than to be turned into an insane dwarf.  As with the book, we learn that love weakens Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium to the point where mere mortals can destroy him and his minions (damn shame about Pam Grier, though…just saying).

“Unlimuh-ted POWER!!” 
Mr. Dark goes full-Palpatine in the movie’s final moments in stark (but arguably more cinematic) contrast to his fate in the book. 

Looking for Jim, they find him at the de-aging carousel, about to take a ride with Mr. Dark and become the man he’s always wanted to be.  Jim and Mr. Dark are on the ride just as a divine bolt of lightning strikes it. Jim is thrown off of his horse, and the lightning reduces Mr. Dark to a shriveled husk. While Mr. Dark rapidly loses power, Jim is hovering near death from shock.  As Will cries, Charles orders his son to laugh instead!  Charles has correctly deduced that joy and love are antithetical to the dark energy of the carnival.  As he and Will laugh in stark contrast to their circumstances, Jim comes around. 

Note: The movie’s ending is tonally similar, but otherwise very different from the book’s, where Charles kills the Dust Witch with a happy-faced bullet.  We also see a de-aged Mr. Dark trying to trick our heroes by appearing as a little boy, before Charles grabs and hugs the ‘child’ to death in a fatal display of affection, which Mr. Dark can’t tolerate. In hindsight, hugging a child to death might’ve been a very problematic visual to convey cinematically…

“Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It’s a twister! It’s a twister!”

As Charles and the boys flee, a massive tornado then hits the carnival, as if God were cleaning up the mess personally.  With Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival wiped off the green fields of Green Leaf, love has triumphed over darkness and misery.  The next morning we see the triumphant trio merrily laughing and strolling through the streets of their beloved town, which they’ve saved—with the aid of Tom Fury.  I’ve got your back, Tom…

Note: The ending of the movie, with its tornado and divinely-directed lightning strikes, has an “Indiana Jones”-vibe to it, like something befitting “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” While Bradbury’s book obviously predates the adventures of Indiana Jones by nearly two decades, it makes sense that a new story might exert influence upon the adaptation of an older one—giving it a bit more cinematic oomph

How Charles got his groove back.
Turns out that a night of defeating the forces of darkness with the kids does wonders for your vitality, too.

As to whether I prefer the book or movie of “Something Wicked This Way Comes”?  That depends on what experience I crave at a given moment.  The book is obviously layered with more depth and darkness (as well as Bradbury’s wonderful prose), but it’s a different experience than the movie. To its credit, the movie works as a great introduction to the book, and to Bradbury’s imagination. 

The End.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

It was at a Planetary Society “Planetfest” event in Pasadena, California on the night of January 4th, 2004 that I first met the writer whom I’d idolized since childhood, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).  Still one of my favorite authors of all time (to which I’m almost certain he’d say I need to read more, or that I have great taste).  We had a brief, but warm meet-and-greet right before the landing of the Spirit Mars rover on the Red Planet.   I’d brought along my small hardback copy of “From The Dust Returned” (2001) in the forlorn hope he might have a moment to sign it, and thanks to my fanboy tenacity, I saw to it that he did.  I just had to meet him that night.

My own photo of meeting Ray Bradbury (and Forrest Ackerman!), January 3rd, 2004.
My own pic of Bradbury signing autographs taken in January of 2004, with his friend and “Famous Monsters of Filmland” editor Forry Ackerman (1916-2008) at his side (right).  “Famous Monsters of Filmland” was the first magazine I ever subscribed to as a kid.  Ackerman was also an early publisher of Bradbury’s work, before he took off.

Several of us gathered around Bradbury’s wheelchair, and he patiently signed each book or card that came his way.  When it came my turn, I instinctively reached for his hand, and to my surprise, he took it with both of his.  I told him he began my love affair with science fiction/fantasy literature, and I thanked him profusely.  He smiled and thanked me for the compliment, and I just about fainted dead away.  I don’t get starstruck terribly often, but that night I could’ve floated home afterward.   I remember pulling out my old flip-phone later that evening as I walked to my car, calling just about every human being I knew, and telling them, “I just shook hands with Ray freaking Bradbury!!!”  

While I would see him two more times in person at San Diego Comic Cons 2005 (getting a second autograph) and 2006, that first time meeting Ray Bradbury was truly special, and a night I will never forget.

The Other Version of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1972)

Making the Disney version look a helluva lot better is a lower-budgeted, contemporary (for its time) TV-movie adaptation from 1972, scripted by Bradbury and directed by Colin Finbow. Frankly, I’d never heard of this version until a couple years ago, but having seen it (from a now-defunct YouTube channel), it misfires on so many levels.

Directed by Colin Finbow from a Bradbury script, this 1972-set adaptation simply lacked the scope and means to do any kind of justice to Bradbury’s story.

Bradbury’s prose is legendarily difficult to will into concrete live-action, and this version doesn’t help. The murky visuals, combined with a lack of atmosphere, shatter the lyrical world of the book. I applaud the attempt, but the ambition simply fell short of the means. Points for trying, anyway. Bradbury’s rich plethora of short stories would later land on more fertile ground in cable TV’s “The Ray Bradbury Theatre” (1985-1992), which featured star-studded, earnestly faithful presentations of the author’s tales.

Summing It Up

While not perfect, the 1983 film successfully captures the essence and feel of Bradbury’s book, despite a few dramatic (and allegedly unauthorized) changes to the middle act and ending. Many of the changes made were arguably more cinematic, though I still would’ve preferred to see a de-aged Mr. Dark getting ‘hugged to death’ by Mr. Halloway as his final comeuppance (creepy, but hilarious). If the book were being remade as a film today, Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Nightmare Alley”) would be my first, best pick to direct it, as his sensibilities are perfectly suited to the material. 

Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), Mr. Tetley (Jake Dengel), Young Ed (Tony Christopher) and Young Ms. Foley (Sharan Lea) are part of Mr. Dark’s accursed “Carnival of Souls.”

The casting of the movie is spot on. The late Jason Robards is well-suited to play the time-worn, regretful Charles Halloway. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Halloway’s counterpart and rival father-figure, Mr. Dark; his British accent giving him just enough otherness to feel like an intruder in the idyllic, all-American town of Green Leaf (with scenic Vermont doubling for Illinois in certain scenes).  The child actors, Vidal Peterson (“Will Halloway”) and Shawn Carson (“Jim Nightshade”) have great chemistry together, making their shared history feel authentic. Pam Grier’s “Dust Witch” is very different from the book’s blind soothsayer, though adding the actress’s famed sex appeal to the character makes her more of a primal temptation for the men of Green Leaf.

Jason Robards (“Charles Halloway”) warns Diane Ladd (“Mrs. Nightshade”) of the dangers lurking in the “Dark.”

A successful if not triumphant adaptation, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” certainly succeeds in capturing Bradbury’s love of autumn, and his boyhood fascination with carnivals. It’s also an ode to the trials of childhood with a few regrets of adulthood too, making it a Halloween-season story with multi-generational appeal.  Well worth a peek under the tent…

Where To Watch

Unfortunately, the movie is currently not available to stream, nor to view as a streaming rental or digital purchase on YouTube/PrimeVideo.  However, if one is determined to see it, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is available on DVD from Amazon for $14.99 (comparable to the price of a movie ticket these days).  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Disney+ or some other streaming service adds the movie as part of their October Halloween season lineup. Keep your eyes open!

Images: Disney, IMDb, Author

4 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    As I recall, Something Wicked This Way Comes was one of my intros in childhood to the legacy of Ray Bradbury. I think it was around the time I saw the TV version of The Martian Chronicles. To learn more about the differences, welcomed by the author or not, between an original novel and the film adaptation is yet again food for thought. When I was a child viewer of such films, it was most exciting to see the child actors throw their weight into the story. Certainly enough to make children in the audience wonder how they’d handle such an adventure happening in real life.

    I think that Bradbury was a most uniquely gifted writer. Certainly in horror stories, like The Small Assassin and Zero Hour. So it’s fitting to revisit Something Wicked This Way Comes now that we’re nearing the Halloween season. Thank you for your review.

    1. My pleasure, Mike! 😉
      Halloween season begins for me in September, which I prefer to think of as “October Eve.”

  2. ghostof82 says:

    I missed an opportunity to meet Ray Bradbury at a book signing here in the UK in the late-eighties. Being back in the pre-Internet days, I only learned of the book signing when the local paper covered it AFTER the event (imagine my horror).

    I think the film is flawed, but pretty good on the whole. I think an authentic, serious and adult version, less a genre movie and more a period film with fantasy trappings, is yet to be made- maybe one day. An article in Cinefantastique covers the troubled production very well and the film is actually better than it has any right to be, considering what went on.

    I like both scores, the rejected original and James Horner’s last-minute replacement. I was lucky enough to get both Intrada CDs when they came out, and both are very good. One can tell from the rejected score that the original film would have been quite different prior to the reshoots and new visual effects. Its really quite subtle, whereas the finished film and Horner’s score are more in-your-face and commercial.

    I’d love to see Disney give the film a good 4k remaster like Dragonslayer got for that films 4K UHD release. It’ll never happen, of course. My major Bradbury wish though is for a great The Martian Chronicles film with a genuine retro feel to the design (silver starships etc), as if the film were set and filmed in the 1950s, with that innocent Americana feel that is entrenched in so many Bradbury works.

    I still think Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made, even if it has nothing to do with Bradbury at all. It just captures the feel of his prose so well.

    1. Thanks so much for that insightful reply; much appreciated!

      I too, had the old Cinefantastique issue, but it got lost through a few moves, unfortunately. Wish I kept a tighter grip on it.

      As for the original (unused) score? I haven’t heard it, so I haven’t the same basis for comparison as yourself, but I’m glad you shared your observations here!

      I also agree on “Field of Dreams”; I remember seeing it theatrically many years ago, and only now (with your reply) do I realize why it resonated so strongly with me then.

      Thanks again!

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