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Roald Dahl (#110 of 4)

Summer of ’90: The Witches

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Summer of ’90: The Witches

Warner Bros.

Summer of ’90: The Witches

Children’s movies are traditionally designed to comfort. There’s an unspoken contract between parent and filmmaker: “For the next 90 minutes, your child will be entertained, but not threatened. No need to worry about your little darlings waking up at three in the morning, bawling in terror. This movie is guaranteed not to trouble anyone’s mind. Most people are inherently good. The bad guys don’t win.”

Children’s movies, for the most part, have abided by this contract, but for a brief period during the 1980s those rules went out the window. Children’s cinema was in transition¬. The old standbys, musicals and animation, were out, and sci-fi and fantasy were in. Disney and Jim Henson, in particular, were looking to forge new identities, away from their trademark brands. The result was Something Wicked This Way Comes, Watcher in the Woods, The Black Cauldron, Return to Oz, and The Dark Crystal. These films were guaranteed to give children nightmares, populated as they were by creepy carnivals, screeching lizard-like Skeksis, and rooms full of shrieking severed heads. Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, released just as Disney’s renaissance restored the old rules, was the last and darkest of this bunch—the best and perhaps the only horror movie made for children.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions Animated Short

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Even though some were pegging Logorama as a possible upset over A Matter of Loaf and Death in this category prior to last year’s Oscar ceremony, I didn’t think the former’s crude hipster snark would resonate with voters as significantly as the humanist warmth of Nick Park’s most recent Wallace and Gromit adventure. That it did in the end may bode well for Let’s Pollute, a six-minute snarkfest about pollution so oversaturated with sarcasm it made me want to mix my cardboards and plastics out of sheer frustration, but will the young’ns who helped push Logorama to a win last year find real innovation to the ingratiating film’s surface-deep regurgitation of the style of ’50s educational films? Hopefully voters will embrace a film that doesn’t feel as if was made in order to be excerpted by Michael Moore.

A Very Good and Very Nasty Sort of Character Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl

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A Very Good and Very Nasty Sort of Character: Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
A Very Good and Very Nasty Sort of Character: Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl, creator of a singularly madcap literary universe populated by lonely child waifs and anthropomorphic insectoids, wily foxes and loathsome witches, big friendly giants and history’s weirdest and most celebrated chocolate factory owner, once described his method for designing character in this way: “I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty and very bad and very cruel. And if they’re ugly, you make them extremely ugly. That I think is fun and makes an impact.”

This approach comes impressively to life in Dahl’s crowded pantheon of revolting villains, such as the horrid Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge from James and the Giant Peach, who force young orphaned James to sleep in their attic’s bare floorboards, and the shotgun-toting farmers from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bogis, Bunce, and Bean (“One short, one fat, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean”), and though perhaps not quite on par with child abuse or murderous intent, there’s Veruca Salt, patron saint of phenomenally spoiled brats the world over. One senses a fair amount of sadistic glee in the construction of these figures, and in the inventive, often dramatic means of their disposal. Dahl knew what children loved, and children, even more than rooting for the underdog hero, love to see the villain getting her just deserts, as foul little Veruca does when she is gratefully flung down a garbage chute.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

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And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: <em>Alfred Hitchcock Presents</em>
And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: <em>Alfred Hitchcock Presents</em>

When people speak of Hitchcock, they usually refer to the Master of Suspense’s movies. No one sings the praises of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the TV show he hosted from 1955-1962. If Hitch’s cinematic work cemented his legendary director status, his portly silhouette beamed into millions of households every week made him a celebrity. Before Rod Serling submitted Twilight Zones “for your approval,” and the Crypt Keeper bloodied up HBO, Hitch presented the types of twisted tales you’d expect from him. Like Serling’s masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had a famous opening sequence. As Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” played, Hitch would step, in silhouette, into his outline drawn on the screen. It was simple, yet mysterious, and more than a little creepy.

At the movie theater, Hitch let his camera do the talking for him, revealing his macabre sense of humor and morbidly perfect comic timing. On TV, with far less screen time and budget, Hitch did the talking himself. “Good eeeeve-ning,” he would always begin before buttering us up for the night’s deviltry. He would tell us about tales of suspense and “murrrr-der” written and directed by people like Arthur Hiller, Charles Beaumont, Ida Lupino, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch; and seemed genuinely pissed off that he had to stop for commercials. “And now…a word from our…SPON-surrrrr,” he would say disapprovingly. His mock disdain (or was it real?) made for some funny comments at the expense of his benefactors.