MTV Geek LOVES Halloween — so we’ve decided to share our fave frightful movies, TV shows, comics, and books with you all month long!
“Remember girls, show the world–let them know it’s… Halloween!”
– The Grand Wizard (Tim Curry)
Charlotte Rae in dual roles teaching everything but The Facts of Life. A former Avenger turned witch. Tim Curry belting out a post-disco dance tune about Halloween. Fairuza Balk honing her Craft a little early.
Most of the titles in our Frightful Faves series have been aimed squarely at older viewers, but this time, we wanted to take a look at something a little lighter than you might be interested in sharing with the junior Halloween fans in your house: the 1986 TV movie adaptation of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch novels.
At Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, young Mildred Hubble is an awkward first-year who just can’t seem to get the knack for casting spells, her black cat’s a tabby, and all of the popular girls hate her. Between accidentally turning a classmate into a student as well as uncovering a coven of evil witches plotting against the school, Mildred has her little hands full.
The 1986 TV movie was directed by Robert Young, who was also responsible for another film we’ve considered recently, the substantially more adult Vampire Circus for Hammer Films. Young trades in sexed-up phantasmagoria for kid-friendly oddness like Tim Curry swooping in as the Grand Wizard with his green screen coat, turning the short feature into a musical for about three minutes.
The film was based on the first entry in Jill Murphy’s series of Worst Witch novels, which debuted 12 years earlier. In 1998, a London/Quebec-shot TV series based on the novels was produced, running for three seasons, but for viewers of a certain age, the very… inexpensively produced feature is really the one that comes to mind when you mention The Worst Witch.
Starring in the title role was Fairuza Balk, who between this and the traumatically dark Return To Oz was well on her way to a fine career in roles as troubled, lonely little girls. She’s earnest, sweet, and wide-eyed here, a far cry from the darker roles she would take as an adult in films like The Craft or, you know, American History X. Joining Balk was The Facts of Life’s Mrs. Garrett, Charlotte Rae, pretty much replicating the sweet, dotty old woman role from that show with a surprising villainous turn as her Ms. Cackle’s evil twin sister. Diana Rigg probably gave Alan Rickman something to think about in his role as Professor Snape with her turn as the harsh headmistress Miss Headbroom.
But the whole movie belongs to Rocky Horror Picture Show/Clue star Tim Curry, who has a brief appearance here as the well-coiffed, flying, singing Grand Wizard. Curry at the best of times sounds like he’s both coming on to you and putting you down, and the way he vamps at the girls here is deliriously, wonderfully weirdly off-tone with the rest of the feature. It’s definitely a movie by the man responsible for putting a nude snake woman dance in the middle of a vampire picture.
If you squint a little, you can see a little bit of The Worst Witch making its way into J.K. Rowling’s work, with the same emphasis on a parallel world of magical whimsy with its own rules of reality. I’m not saying there any kind of lift here between the two authors’ work–in fact, Rowling was more concerned about her characters growing up and maturing in school than Murphy was in her own work. Not better, not worse–just different focuses.
Like most of the entries in this series, The Worst Witch is pretty easy to get your hands on if you want to check it out this Halloween. While there are no legitimate streaming options out there, Bfs Entertainment put out a DVD back in 2004. It’s a great title for the younger viewers, or those with a taste for the slightly surreal and odd. It might be time to introduce it to the little trick or treater you know this year.