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SUFFER THE CHILDREN

The Witches is a delectably creepy movie guaranteed to keep night lights burning bright. This is the antithesis of executive producer Jim Henson's Muppets, with Anjelica Huston playing a character as from removed from Miss Piggy as one can get.

The Witches, adapted from Roald Dahl's dark prize-winning children's book, tells the story of a 9-year-old boy raised by his kindly cigar-smoking grandmother after losing both his parents in an auto accident.

At the beginning of the tale, Norwegian grandma Helga (Mai Zetterling) is relating witch lore to her American-born grandson, Luke (Jasen Fisher). It appears that Helga, whose hands have only nine digits, has had closer encounters with sorcerers than most grannies.

Witches, she says, hate children. They look like everyone else unless you spy the purple-blue glow in their eyes or see them scratching their scalps. Witches must wear wigs to cover their bald heads, and the hairpieces irritate their boil-covered skin.

Oh yes, Granny adds, tucking Luke into bed. Witches have a highly developed sense of smell. They find the odor of children as distasteful as dog droppings. Don't bathe more than once a month, she advises, a prospect that sends Luke off to a pleasant sleep.

During the ensuing weeks, Luke and Granny move to England and then take a vacation at a seaside resort. Their visit coincides with the annual meeting of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a phony league formed entirely of witches.

The Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) has perfected a potion that will turn all of Britain's children into mice. Her disciples plan to buy candy stores and then distribute tainted sweets to youngsters on a predetermined day.

Luke overhears the plot but is captured and turned into a field mouse. Retaining his ability to speak, he warns Grandma, and the two conspire to thwart the witches.

The Witches has a leisurely, almost hypnotic, pace that suits the story well until the very end when director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Allan Scott wrap up some major plot threads, literally, in a matter of seconds. This abrupt resolution practically undermines all that has transpired before it. But the performances and the story's fairy tale-like quality win out.

Huston is delightfully brusque as the grand dame of witches who rarely condescends to shake a hand and can maintain her poise through any situation short of uttering the word "children." The moment she sheds her mask to reveal a crooked beak, hairy, wart-covered skin and bloodshot eyes may be too intense for young children, although she does this with such panache that the scene has a certain comic ambiance.

Jasen Fisher is endearing in Luke's human form and as the voice accompanying Henson's animatronic mouse.

Best of all, though, is Mai Zetterling, whose wise, spry and slightly eccentric grandmother treats Luke as an equal rather than a child. Zetterling is the Granny every youngster covets.

MOVIE REVIEW

The Witches

+ + +

Director: Nicolas Roeg Cast: Anjelica Huston, Jasen Fisher, Mai Zetterling, Charlie Potter

Screenplay: Allan Scott, based on the children's book by Roald Dahl

Rating: PG; violence

Running time: 92 minutes

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