I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t even know this film existed. I did know of the Ray Bradbury novel (though I have not read it), and, considering that Bradbury wrote the screenplay adaptation as well, I thought this version of the work of a science fiction master (who doesn’t get a lot of coverage in this blog) would be worth a look.
The story begins in autumn in an idyllic Midwestern town and centers on two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Jim’s father has abandoned him, whereas Will’s older father (played by Jason Robards) has disengaged from life due to his failing health. One evening, a train blows into town carrying a particularly creepy carnival run by a Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce). The carnival begins to seduce the townspeople with promises of youth, wealth, and women, and only Will and Jim seem to see what’s going on. As Mr. Dark chases them through town, they must depend on Will’s father to step forward and protect them.
It’s basically a children’s film (Disney produced the adaptation), but, other than a few cheap and generic scares (tarantula wranglers sure got a lot of work in the ‘80s), it’s still sufficiently creepy. And, there is a lot going on here thematically about fatherhood, age, and mortality; it’s a nicely layered film. It’s also fun to see two amazing and underrated actors at the top of their game in Robards and Pryce, though the kids are slightly annoying. My one real complaint is the same as my gripe with Farhenheit 451 – there’s some fairly harsh moralizing coming from Bradbury here. The film really condemns the townsfolk for their petty desires – from what I know of Bradbury, I doubt the novel goes any easier on them. When Stephen King basically rewrote the same story in 1991’s Needful Things, he, as usual, had much more sympathy and understanding for the average people as they fall prey to their desires.