So, there’s this movie, starring Fairuza Balk as a witch who sticks it to the popular girl, gets in over her head and… saves the day? No, I’m not talking about The Craft; I’m talking about The Worst Witch, a movie that was my four-year-old self’s equivalent to Harry Potter, a cult classic and, um, kind of terrible, in an awesome way.
Mildred Hubble is a young witch sent to live and study at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. She attends the classes we’d all expect; Potions, Broom-Flying practice, that sort of thing, but she is “without a doubt, the worst witch in the entire school.” Perhaps to emphasize her outcast status, she’s also the only American student at the British boarding school, which always puzzled me as a child. Despite her overall clumsiness and general ineptitude (really, how hard is it to gather some moss at midnight?) she’s good-hearted and likeable.
But really, Mildred’s troubles are only one half of the movie. The other half, the reason anyone else but me remembers the film at all, is the fabulous Tim Curry. And his music video. That’s right, music video. In fact, to fully appreciate where I’m coming from, take a break and watch the video for yourself. Breathtaking, isn’t it?
It’s got every standard 80s video effect, a plush heart pillow that was probably left over from Valentine’s Day, and a sun that looks like it was cut out of poster board. Several high schools’ color guards were robbed to make his cloak. His bow tie is a bat, with little eyes and everything! Towards the end there’s tambourine playing. To be fair, that’s probably because the guy who was writing the lyrics decided that even his minimum amount of effort was too much and asked his ten-year-old for “rhyming help.”
And even all that almost fades into the background next to Tim Curry, doing his very best Tim Curry, moaning and flirting with the camera and generally hamming it up. In short, it’s perfect.
Ol’ Tim is playing The Grand Wizard, the rock star of the witch world. He pretty much shows up in the middle to be awesome, and then again at the end to be… awesome, and to validate Mildred (spoiler alert: she saves the day!).
Now, when I was a tiny child, no more than three or four years old, this aired on HBO. Later, it would air on Disney. And perhaps as a foreshadowing to the whole Harry Potter craze, it instantly struck a chord with me. I loved it. I would take my family’s ordinary kitchen broom and a stuffed cat and go tearing around the house, probably knocking over household objects in the process. I thought boarding schools seemed like the coolest idea ever, but only if you were studying magic. I didn’t know, at the time, that the movie was based on a British book series; if they’d been easily available, I certainly would have gobbled them up.
How did this ultimately mold me as a person? Well, aside from the fact that I was a witch for Halloween seven years in a row… It was another one in an arsenal of fiction that assured me that sincerity and heart might count as much as skill, in the end. To be honest, I was a bit of a Hermione know-it-all in elementary school; academics came easily to me. I might not have been able to identify with Mildred in the strictest sense (though certainly I had my own outcast moments) but movies like The Worst Witch taught me empathy. And as an adult, I think my heart – my empathetic nature – is my defining characteristic, even more than my intelligence.
Also, I’m not sure I would have ever bothered to read Harry Potter if it hadn’t been for The Worst Witch. When the Potter books were first becoming popular, it wasn’t yet popular for adults to read YA fiction. I was in late high school or college by then; I scoffed at picking up a book for children, though I always noted that the concept was the sort of thing I would have loved as a child. I didn’t read a Potter book until after I saw the first movie. And while the movie itself surely did work its magic, it also reignited that part of me that ran around on a broom and wanted to go to Miss Cackle’s Academy.
With Halloween less than a week away, I thought this was a fitting time to celebrate a film I still watch every October. And now I want know: what about you? What movies are a must-watch every Halloween? Does The Worst Witch make any of your lists?
And remember: Show the world. Let them know it’s… Halloween.