The Worst Witch (1986) — Harriet Potter and the Prisoner of Halloween

“Everyone knows how to play Terror Tag.”

Justin’s rating: Brooms with phones? What will they think of next!

Justin’s review: A wizarding school set in a British castle. A mean potions master. Flights on broomsticks. Invisibility spells. A flighty headmaster. Cat familiars. Clearly, J.K. Rowling didn’t conjure up Harry Potter out of thin air, as the idea of magicians being trained at boarding schools actually dates back to 1974’s The Worst Witch. That series, which is quite popular in its own right, spawned a whole franchise that included a few TV series and a stage play.

However, today we’re going to focus on the first adaptation of the books: A made-for-TV movie in 1986 that stars a very young Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz), Charlotte Rae (Facts of Life), and Tim Curry (Clue). Balk is Mildred Hubble, an oh-so-slightly clumsy first-year witch who is the only kid in this all-girls school who isn’t instantly perfect. Thus, she’s the “worst” witch who does things like stumble into other kids and not get her potion mixture right. This marks her for extreme persecution by fellow students and Miss Hardbroom, who I’m convinced was Severus Snape’s mother.

If you’re looking for a movie where your lead character says “Sorry!” and makes apologetic faces a lot, you’re in for the 70 minutes of your dreams. For the rest of us, we’ll make do with the best special effects that mid-80s British TV studios could create. It’s actually kind of charming.

The plot loosely follows Mildred as she bumbles her way through her first year while the school headmistress’ twin sister shows up as an evil witch trying to destroy the place. She also has to contend with a rival girl named Ethel, who at one point is turned into a pig. I’m sure it was the highlight of Balk’s career to spend several scenes acting against a swine. Oh, and the whole school has the biggest estrogen crush on the Grand Wizard (Curry), who is visiting on Halloween. No, it’s not creepy that kids are shown kissing photos of an adult man, why do you ask?

But if you had to ask me what I liked the best about The Worst Witch, I would reply instantly — and without any sarcasm — “the soundtrack.” This features a synth score that is so incredibly cheesy that it laps itself and becomes amazing. It’s like getting blasted with EPCOT’s Future World from the 1980s, if that analogy makes any sense. And on top of that, there is a smattering of totally terrible musical numbers that, again, wrap around the world to go from “bad” to “bodacious:”

And then when you add in Tim Curry, who arrives swooping down with a cape wider than an Airbus, a bat bow tie, and his trademark silky voice, you kind of don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s all silly and colorful and weird, the kind of thing that’s aimed to delight kids but may end up pleasing the campy at heart as well.

While this wasn’t part of my childhood, you won’t have to go far to find someone who grew up watching this every Halloween and knowing every line verbatim. Maybe the best thing I can say is that I’d watch this over two, maybe three of the actual Harry Potter movies.

Didja notice?

  • The blow-up skeleton in the classroom
  • Tim Curry is the only guy in this entire movie
  • Well that’s a horrible school song
  • These bad witches look like they raided the remnants of an after-Halloween sale at a costume shop
  • Every time this movie starts in on a musical number, plug your ears FAST
  • Cats love to fly and be held by screaming girls, apparently
  • Kids making mildly scary faces is the most terrifying thing ever

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