As in the novel, the story fantasises witches who masquerade as ordinary women and kill children, but are foiled and exterminated by a boy and his grandmother after the boy is turned into a mouse. The film was very well received by critics, but performed poorly at the box office and was also hated by Roald Dahl because of its ending differing from the book.
During a holiday with his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) in Norway, Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is told stories about "real" witches, female demons with a genocidal hatred for children, all of whom emit an odor obnoxious to witches. Helga tells him that her childhood friend was taken and cursed to spend the rest of her life trapped inside a painting. After Luke's parents are accidentally killed, Helga becomes Luke's legal guardian and they move to England. While building a treehouse, Luke is accosted by a witch, though he sees through her ruse and avoids his potential death, hiding at the top of the tree. On Luke's 9th birthday, Helga falls ill with her diabetes. Her doctor advises them to spend the summer by the sea.
They stay at a seaside resort, where Luke meets and befriends a gluttonous but friendly boy, Bruno Jenkins (Charlie Potter), while getting on the bad side of the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer (Rowan Atkinson), after his pet mice frighten a maid who is having an affair with the manager. Also staying at the hotel are a convention load of witches, masquerading as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), the leader of the world's witches, attending their annual meeting.
Luke inadvertently discovers the witches while playing with his pet mice inside the ballroom, where the witches hold their meeting. The Grand High Witch unveils her latest weapon: a formula to turn children into mice, which they will use on confectionery products in sweet shops and candy stores to be opened using money provided by the Grand High Witch. Bruno is lured into the room, having already been given chocolate laced with the formula a couple of hours earlier. He turns into a mouse and flees. Luke attempts to escape but is also captured and turned into a mouse, though he avoids being squashed. He finds Bruno and reunites with Helga who recovered while Luke was adventuring.
Luke devises a plan to kill the witches by sneaking into the Grand High Witch's room to steal a bottle of the formula. Luke manages to drop the bottle into a pot of cress soup destined for the witches' dinner tables. Mr. Jenkins (Bill Paterson) also orders the soup, though Helga stops him from consuming it at the last minute.
As the witches enter the dining room, the Grand High Witch's former assistant Miss Irvine (Jane Horrocks) quits working with the witches, and gets spared from the massacre that is about to happen. The formula turns all the witches into mice, just after Bruno speaks up to tell his father that he is really a mouse. The staff and hotel guests join in killing the mice, unknowingly ridding England of its witches, as Helga returns Bruno to his parents. The Grand High Witch is spotted by Helga, who traps her under a water jug, enabling Mr. Stringer to dispatch her with a meat cleaver.
Luke and Helga return to their home, where they are delivered the Grand High Witch's trunk full of money and an address book of all witches in the USA. Luke (who had secretly readdressed the trunk at the resort) suggests that they might use it to eradicate the world's witches once and for all. That night, Miss Irvine pays a visit to the house and uses her power to return Luke to his human body and return his pet mice, along with his glasses, before leaving to repeat the process with Bruno.Anjelica Huston as Miss Ernst/Grand High Witch
Jasen Fisher as Luke Eveshim
Mai Zetterling as Helga Eveshim
Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Stringer
Jane Horrocks as Miss Susan Irvine
Charlie Potter as Bruno Jenkins
Anne Lambton as Pamela (The Woman in Black)
Angelique Rockas as Henrietta
Annabel Brooks as Nicola Cuttle
Sukie Smith as Marlene
Bill Paterson as Herbert Jenkins
Brenda Blethyn as Rebecca Jenkins
Jenny Runacre as Elizabeth "Elsie"
Emma Relph as Mildred "Millie"
Rose English as Doreen "Dora"
Nora Connolly as Beatrice
Rosamund Greenwood as Janice
Darcy Flynn as Luke's mother
Vincent Marzello as Luke's father
Ola Otnes as Erica's father
Jim Carter as Andre the chef
Roberta Taylor as Jacqueline (chef witch)
Stella Tanner as Loisette "Lois" Leffour
Barbara Hicks as Regina
The following people did special puppeteer work in this film:Anthony Asbury
Don Austen – Luke's Mouse Form, Bruno's Mouse Form
David Greenaway – Mice
Robert Tygner – Mice
The Witches based on the book of the same name by British author Roald Dahl. It was the final film that Jim Henson personally worked on before his death, the final theatrical film produced by Lorimar Productions, and the last film made based on Dahl's material before his death (both Henson and Dahl died that year).
The whole section at the start of the film (until they move to the United Kingdom) was shot in Bergen in Norway. Much of the film was shot on location in the Headland Hotel (which was named "Hotel Excelsior" in the film, though it was called the "Hotel Magnificent" in the book) situated on the coast in Newquay, Cornwall (Bournemouth in the book). Roald Dahl originally wanted Cher to play the role of the Grand High Witch, but she was unavailable at the time because the actress was filming Mermaids. Eartha Kitt, Fiona Fullerton, Geneviève Bujold, Starr Andreeff, Olivia Hussey, Sigourney Weaver, Frances Conroy, and Liza Minnelli were all at some point considered for the part of The Grand High Witch prior to Anjelica Huston’s casting. Huston’s casting later satisfied Dahl.
The movie was slated to be distributed by Lorimar but when the company dissolved their theatrical distribution operation, it wound up sitting on the shelf for more than a year after filming was completed. The movie premiered on 25 May 1990, in London and was scheduled to open the same day in the United States, but following Florida test screenings earlier that year Warner Bros. delayed the American release until August. The film took in $10,360,553 in the United States and 266,782 in Germany.
Warner Home Video first released the film on VHS in 1991. The second release (and first re-release) was on VHS and for the first time on DVD in 1999. Both versions (and any TV screenings) use the original open matte negative of the film, instead of matting it down to 1.85:1 (or 1.66:1). The film was released in the Netherlands in 2009, with this DVD shown in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
The film contains an orchestral score composed by Stanley Myers. To date, a soundtrack CD has not been released, and the entire score remains obscure. Throughout the score, the Dies Irae appears, highly reminiscent of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique Mvt. V, "The Witches Sabbath."
The Witches was well received by critics and audiences alike, but performed poorly at the box office. The film holds a rare 100% in the film critics site Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews from 32 critics. Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, calling the film "an intriguing movie, ambitious and inventive, and almost worth seeing just for Anjelica Huston's obvious delight in playing a completely uncompromised villainess." Roald Dahl himself regarded the film as "utterly appalling" because of the ending that contrasted with the book.Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (1991)
Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Make-up (John Stephenson)
Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Music (Stanley Myers)
Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor (Jasen Fisher)
Nominated – Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress (Mai Zetterling)
BAFTA Awards (1991)
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Makeup and Hair (Christine Beveridge)
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1991)
Won – Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
Nominated – International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film (Nicolas Roeg)
Hugo Awards (1991)
Nominated – Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1990)
Won – Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1990)
Won – National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (Anjelica Huston)
In 2017, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón expressed interest in making a remake of The Witches starring Jennifer Lopez.