Witchy Wednesdays: The Worst Witch

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Jessica Sowards

With American Horror Story returning to Wednesday nights this month with the decidedly witchy Coven, we at Comics Bulletin thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the more entertaining Witchy Movies of the past thirty years or so. First up is the family classic, The Worst Witch.

“Growing up isn’t easy.  The classroom is a frightening place. Feel that I could use some space.” The first bars and lines of this song signaled one thing to me during the 1980s, Halloween was here! I sang along with the opening song and was transported to Miss Cackle’s International Academy for Witches.

The Worst Witch is a great film to watch as a family to celebrate Halloween, or for 20-30 year olds to watch and relive the fun and cheesiness of the 1980s. It is a made for television movie which debuted in 1986, based on the 1974 book of the same name by Jill Murphy.  The book has a very strong following and also inspired a British television series that ran from 1998-2001.

The film follows Mildred Hubble (Fairuza Balk) as she bumbles her way through her first year of witching school where she struggles to learn to a fly on a broom, pass potion tests, and escape the taunts of Ethel Hallow (Anna Kipling).  Mildred is also a thorn in the side of teacher, Miss Hardbroom (Diana Rigg), who is much more impressed with the current offering of the Hallow family. Mildred literally crashes the party of Agatha, the evil sister of the school’s head mistress, Miss Cackle (Charlotte Rae in a dual role).

Agatha and her gang are planning to take over the school while everyone is busy and distracted preparing for Halloween and a visit from the Grand Wizard (Tim Curry).  Flunking her tests, being clumsy, and ruining the broomstick flying formation in front of the Grand Wizard leads everyone to believe Mildred is the worst witch.  When she saves the day, however, the Grand Wizard lectures the entire school, who is now happy and proud of Mildred, that the best witch is not always the one who aces all the tests.  Mildred finally gets the hang of flying after a lesson from the Grand Wizard himself.

The airing of this special meant to me and other children of the 1980s, that Halloween was on its way.  Though Nickelodeon was enjoying its Golden Age and Saturday morning cartoons ruled the weekends, there were very few shows on television for children.  Today such a special would be swallowed up and quickly forgotten, but The Worst Witch is a cult favorite for my age group.  The special re-aired for a few years on HBO and then disappeared until it was finally released on VHS in 1994, re-released in 1999, and then via a very plain Jane DVD version in 2004. My taped-off-TV VHS tape died somewhere around 1993 -- probably from overuse.

There is a cornucopia of reasons why this film is a classic for so many.  First of all, kid viewers dreamed of being Mildred.  True, they might mess up here and there and they might be awkward, but in the end they want to be the hero who saves the school, proving to everyone they are not such screw ups after all.  Secretly, we have that desire to show them, once and for all!

Did Mildred suddenly find her niche, though, or was she never the worst witch, after all?  True, she screwed up the laughing potion exam by creating the wrong potion, but she successfully executed the invisibility potion.  During flying class, even Miss Hardbroom was impressed with her flying, until she found out it was Mildred.  Mildred was able, with no guidance, to turn Ethel into a pig! Yeah, yeah, she was trying to turn her into a frog, but, as Ethel pointed out, Mildred should not even know how to do such a complex spell!  Lastly, when faced with danger and a gang of evil witches trying to zap her with their fingers, she was able to turn them into snails!  Yes, the sister of the headmistress, the daughter of the woman who founded the first organized educational establishment for young witches, was turned into a snail by a first year witching student!

Another reason why this movie is a classic is the music!  I dare you to watch this and not get at least one song stuck in your head.  The opening theme is wise and easy for the young viewer to relate to.  Nope, growing up is not easy.  Yet another wonderful musical moment is when Agatha and her gang of evil witches erupt into a song after plotting to take over the school.  Agatha calls out, “Beat on it, Delilah,” and her second in command lays down a mad beat on the cauldron. Charlotte Rae clearly enjoyed the wicked role of Agatha.  Throughout the show, she hams up being evil.  Whenever possible, she smacks around her henchman and adds a bellowing laugh. This role is quite different than her Mrs. Garret alter ego.  But don’t worry; she channels Mrs. G in the scenes she plays Miss Cackle.

Agatha is mainly upset that her alma mater has gotten soft under her sister’s direction.  This song describes the kind of witches who would be welcome at “Miss Aggie’s School.”  Yes, if you are icky, smelly, evil, wicked, and cruel…you would feel right at home at her school.  Hmm…evil, wicked, and cruel.  All characteristics you would associate with a traditional Halloween-style witch.  In fact, this is my main complaint as an adult viewer.  During the film, the girls wear long, crooked witch noses and even Miss Hardbroom bids the girls “pleasant nightmares,” but characteristics a kid would stereotypically associate with a witch are considered bad in this show.

Of course, one of the most memorable parts of The Worst Witch is Tim Curry’s performance of “Anything Can Happen on Halloween.”  The entire school is delighted with the appearance of The Grand Wizard on Halloween.  He received so many invitations, but chose their school.  With him, he brings a wonderful musical number.  As a child, I was mesmerized by the song and special effects.  As an adult, my view is a bit different.  It is obviously dated.  Times change and technology improves.  This is evident in the green screen effects and the Beta Max tape that is used as a prop. 

The song starts out pretty well, at first.  Big Daddy Wiz sings about the creepiness and magic of Halloween, pointing out why it is better than other holidays and seasons.  It is interesting to watch the screen behind him.  If you pay close attention, you will see scenes associated with Halloween like a pumpkin, black cat, fireworks, the ocean, a killer whale…? It is like the person in charge of this footage and special effects slacked off and then tried to finish it quickly. 

Do not let the effects distract you to the point that you forget to listen to the lyrics.  Halfway through the song, The Grand Wizard sings, “Has anyone seen my tambourine.  I might start singing Begin the Beguine.”  At this point, it is almost like Tim Curry has started singing random lyrics that rhyme because he has forgotten the words of the song.  You have to give him credit though; Tim Curry makes the most of this song and its lyrics.  He sings it with integrity and does not deliver a campy, self-mocking performance.  As a Tim Curry fan, I really enjoy a film in which he plays a heartthrob.

When Jessica Sowards is not fighting crime, she can be found watching almost any movie that comes her way whether it be good or bad.  She is obsessed with The Muppets and knows a little too much trivia from sitcoms of the 1980s. 

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