I'm not gonna be that guy who comes on the internet the day after a celebrity dies and says he's their biggest fan. In the case of Ray Bradbury, I'd be insulting all the people out there who actually READ. But I do intend to pay tribute to a wonderful author - one who changed my view of science fiction when I read Fahrenheit 451, and one whose name I couldn't help finding on plenty of movies and TV shows that shook my genre-lovin' mind. Outside of Fahrenheit 451, a younger Mike occasionally got Bradbury confused with Richard Matheson - an honest mistake, I assure you - but it was an adaptation of one of his novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes, that cemented why I love the stories of Mr. Bradbury.
My generation may have lost some of the Bradbury's themes in the works of Stephen King - The Dead Zone refers to it directly and Needful Things is almost a remake of the thing - but we should do our best to look more carefully at this 1983 film. Directed by veteran filmmaker Jack Clayton - who made the jaw-dropping horror thriller The Innocents 22 years earlier - the Disney produced film is exceedingly macabre for the family-friendly studio's tastes. Bradbury's story, originally published in 1962, didn't require the blood, babes, and beasts that were common in early '80s horror films - though there is a wickedly implied decapitation - but still packs a lot of dark intrigue.
The story revolves around the fictitious Green Town - setting of several of Bradbury's works - and a mysterious carnival - Dark's Pandemonium - that rolls in to town deep into October. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, two young adventurers who seem to stick their noses in all of the town's business, find the timing very peculiar and begin snooping - which confirms dangers beyond the fears of their imagination. But it's Will's father - a man who feels much too old to keep up with his young son - that is the character who has the most fear to deal with.
Charles Halloway - played to perfection by Jason Robards, Jr. - is a good man. It's just that he's a man that is afraid of death. Robards was over 60 at the time of filming, and his performance seems to very naturally represent a man who is struggling to deal with what is left in his life. Early scenes in the film make it evident that he can sense that something isn't right about this carnival, but the physical strain of having to deal with this and the sinister implications of what he must face slow his desire to face this evil. He's kind of like me when I realize I need food to survive, but have to pay for and or cook it....it's a real buzzkill to have to put effort in to it, I'd rather just ignore it.
Charles soon comes face to face with the man behind the dark (no pun intended) magic - a sneering and well bearded Jonathan Pryce (Bradbury tried to convince the studio to get Peter O'Toole or Christopher Lee, the studio stood firm on "Hey, let's save money.") - and a battle between good and evil (or perhaps between eternity and frailty) follows. The film hits its highest point when Pryce's Mr. Dark calls out all of Halloway's fears and threatens to literally rip years from the aging librarian's life, a showdown in the dark halls of the town library that is very tense and even a bit heartbreaking. The film also gets some good mileage out of a mostly silent Pam Grier as Dark's seductive cohort, though some special effects that haven't aged well halt her effectiveness at times - especially compared to the grandstanding of Pryce and his wonderful hat.
As the adaptation of Bradbury's tale of seasonal madness rolls through its final scenes, there are more than a few hiccups. I hate that I haven't read the book before now - I've seen the movie a dozen times, there's really no excuse except that I'm lazy - and I know the author wasn't entirely pleased with the movie in its final format. (The author did say in later interviews that it was one of the "better" adaptations of his work.) But through all the minor problems, the merging of human and supernatural horrors and the all-encompassing ability to produce dread shine through. Those aspects of the film seem to come directly from the author, hearkening back to his willingness to let characters confront inner fears in Fahrenheit 451 or his mastery of the balance between life and death in The Creatures That Time Forgot.
This movie certainly can't replace the powerful prose of Fahrenheit 451 - which has to be one of my favorite stories out there - and I'm sure there's more to be found in the novel. But when the topic is Bradbury on film, I'm generally going to lean toward Something Wicked This Way Comes. I can see the work of a great mind behind it, and that mind inspires me to be look for better horror and sci-fi tales on a daily basis. The man may be gone, but I'm going to be grateful to have his works for a long time to come.