Luke (Jasen Fisher) was visiting his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) with his parents in her native Norway, and she loved to tell him tales of the world that not everyone noticed. He loved to hear them, too, and when she got onto the subject of witches he was fascinated, not least when she showed him a finger missing she claimed was taken in her encounters with the most evil women on the planet. According to her, witches were completely bald and wore itchy wigs to hide it, and never wore fashionable shoes because they had no toes. But most pertinently, they hated children - to the point that they wished to destroy them all...
This was the final project for Jim Henson before his untimely death, utilising his company's adeptness with puppets and makeup to bring Roald Dahl's story to life. Dahl himself died not long after it was released, but not before he could complain about the happy ending imposed on this adaptation which after sticking fairly close to the book decided that it needed a more triumphant finale, hence that business with the magic spell at the close. Dahl did, however approve of Anjelica Huston's casting as the Grand Witch, the leader of the evildoers who is about to put her plan into action, a plan which involves a potion and plenty of chocolate.
Dahl was well known for his love of chocolate bars, so presumably the thought of his favourite foodstuff being used for nefarious purposes struck more terror into his heart than it did his young readers. Nevertheless, as a horror movie for kids, The Witches did frighten a lot of youngsters which gave rise to warnings at the time it was released that it was too much for children to take, indeed the British version was trimmed a little to make it more palatable for a PG rating. Of course, for certain children the "safe" scares contained here were precisely what they wanted to see, and the film has gone down as one of those cult family movies, probably because it appealed to adults just as much as the younger generation.
Luke is left with his grandmother (Zetterling having spent most of the previous two decades directing, and returning to the screen for a trio of movies before her death) when his parents die (were the witches responsible? We never find out), and after she is diagnosed with diabetes they head off to a British seaside resort for a break. There they happen to stumble across that plot to transform the nation's children into mice, thereby getting rid of them once and for all, although quite what purpose that would serve is not explored, as the film merely takes it as read that this is the kind of thing witches get up to, and don't go looking for any deeper explanation.
This did leave the film, and Dahl's original, open to criticism for misogyny, as after all the entire cast of baddies are female, yet such characters are archetypal examples of wickedness that children would more likely accept on face value than any overthinking the adults might have done, and besides the grandmother character should have shooed away any claims of anti-women bias. As to the Henson contribution, it's true you could tell the puppet mice from the real ones as a mixture were used depending on the shot, but they had that company's charm, and Huston's makeup once she revealed her true face (which she only really does the once) was suitably grotesque and certain to delight those who thought that female villainy was undervalued in horror movies as far as the monstrous went. Everyone evidently knew just what the material needed as (surprising) director Nicolas Roeg captured Dahl's sense of the macabre, and if it's on the clunky side, that was part of the appeal for those who didn't want their chillers too slick. Music by Stanley Myers.