Ray Bradbury’s childhood encounter with a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico who commanded him to “Live forever!” was perhaps the peak experience in a fascination with carnivals and magicians that he had held for some time. In addition to that magical command, Mr. Electrico, confided that Bradbury was the reincarnation of a friend lost in World War I.
Bradbury most famously returned to the characters of the carnival in the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. The title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth Act IV Scene I. The novel originated in 1958 when Bradbury suggested to his friend, the actor Gene Kelly, that they collaborate on a movie for Kelly to direct. Kelly was enthusiastic and Bradbury spent the next five weeks adapting his 1948 short story “The Black Ferris” into an 80-page movie treatment.Kelly was unable to obtain financial backing for the movie. Over the next five years or so Bradbury gradually expanded the treatment into a novel. He converted the kind magician Mr. Electrico into a dark character, literally Mr. Dark and added versions of the assorted carnival characters he had met so long ago.
In 1977, Bradbury sold the film rights to the film to Paramount Pictures. He and director Jack Clayton produced a completed script. The movie was intended to be produced by Kirk Douglas who also was to have starred in it. However, production never began. At various times, Sam Peckinpath and Steven Speilberg expressed interest in the film. Walt Disney Pictures was attempting at this point to expand the type of films it was producing and decided to purchase the rights. They hired Bradbury to produce a new script from scratch. From there on the story of the movies production is a Hollywood production horror story. The studio meddles every step of the way and it had it’s impact.
The story takes place in Green Town, a small town in Illinois, as the autumn approaches. The main characters are two boys, the quiet Will Halloway and the rebellious Jim Nightshade. When the boys hear about Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival, from a lightning-rod salesman, they decide to see what it is all about. Will is concerned about the nature of a carnival that arrives so late in the year, after most have long gone. The carnival arrives at midnight and seems to magically set itself up in moments. Only gradually is it’s sinister nature truly revealed however. The main attraction is shown to be not the acts but the power of Mr. Dark and company to grant people’s most secret desires. The price is only revealed after the bargain is struck. Material in the book was left out but that is often necessary in creating a film.
The thing that makes the film worthwhile to me is the casting of Jason Robards as the Mr. Halloway and Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. I have always like Mr. Robards work and I found him to be a good choice for the tired, regretful father. At the time, Pryce was a relative unknown and was chosen by Disney to keep down the budget but he does a wonderfully ominous Mr. Dark and without question they got more than they paid for. In a 1981 issue of Cinefantastique, Bradbury stated that his top choices to play Mr. Dark were Peter O’Toole and Christopher Lee, either of whom would certainly have done good job but I think that being an unknown quantity added uncertainty and menace to the suave but sinister character Mr. Pryce gives us. Mr Robards, who uses his wonderful stage voice beautifully to convey the fear and weariness his character must fight in himself to counter Mr. Dark is a perfect counterpoint to Pryce..
Since it was made in 1983 some of the special effects may seem dated. And the complicated production history led to many changes in the finished product that were not intended by Bradbury and the director Jack Clayton. Some feel the opening takes too long and others feel the ending seems rushed. Younger people might feel the nostalgia irrelevant and horror fans might not find it horror enough. But I am inclined to agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote, “In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.” I also agree with his view ” It’s one of the few literary adaptations I’ve seen in which the film not only captures the mood and tone of the novel, but also the novel’s style.” I love the slow opening, taking in the feel of autumn and another era, and introducing the characters we will see drawn in to the carnival’s seductive evil. It’s about fatherhood and friendship, dreams and regrets, and obviously good and evil. It’s not meant to be an action movie, rather it’s meant to get you to think and of course enjoy.