Strong Brew -- `The Witches' Is A Delightful Mix Of Wickedness And Magic

XXXX ``The Witches,'' with Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, from a script by Allan Scott. Broadway Market, Metro, Crossroads, Factoria, Aurora Village, Lewis & Clark, Alderwood, Puget Park Drive-in, Gateway Center 8, Valley Drive-in. Rated PG, due to scary special effects.

What's bald, has scalp itch and wears ``plain, sensible shoes'' to conceal its lack of toes?

That's right: half the cast of ``The Witches,'' one of the sellouts of this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

Now the festival's big hit is back in town and ready to work its spell on unsuspecting viewers. An extraordinary cast and equally extraordinary crew have pulled out all the stops to dazzle and delight. ``The Witches'' is one of the year's most enchanting films.

Consider the ingredients:

-- Anjelica Huston in an over-the-top performance that rivals her work in ``Prizzi's Honor'' and ``Enemies: A Love Story.''

-- Nicolas Roeg - director of ``Don't Look Now,'' ``Track 29'' and ``The Man Who Fell to Earth'' - putting his dazzling film technique to use in a story that should appeal to 10-year-olds and jaded arthouse denizens.

-- The late Jim Henson - of ``Muppets'' and ``Sesame Street'' fame - offering a special-effects tour de force, a brilliant feast of fantasy and grotesquery.

And those are just the known quantities.

Adapted from the children's novel by Roald Dahl, ``The Witches'' is sumptuously crafted, addled and witty, driven and macabre. It's not a film for small children. But for precocious first-graders with a warped sense of humor and an appetite for chills, thrills and spills, nothing could be better. Restless fourth-graders and slumming junior high-school students should get a kick out of it, too. Accompanying adults probably will start child-recruitment programs so they can go see it again.

The story, about a boy who gets turned into a mouse by a coven of witches, has a Grimm's fairytale darkness to it. But with young Jasen Fisher as Luke, the plucky hero, even timid kids should feel confident that everything will come out OK.

The film opens with Luke's cigar-smoking grandmother (Swedish actress and director Mai Zetterling, in her first screen appearance in 15 years) giving her grandson all the practical information he needs to know about witches.

They live in every country in the world, work at ordinary jobs and dress in ordinary clothes. All in all, a witch appears to be an ordinary woman: ``What makes her dangerous is the fact that she doesn't look dangerous.''

A witch is especially dangerous to children because of her highly developed sense of smell. Clean children smell even worse to her than dirty children: ``With a dirty child it's the dirt she smells. With a clean child, it's the child.''

Why does a witch hate the smell of children?

Because, to her, the smell is just like ``fresh dog's droppings.''

When family tragedy leaves Luke permanently in the care of his grandmother, the two of them go on vacation at a plush English seaside hotel. There, unknowingly, they stumble upon a witches' convention headed by one Miss Ernst (Huston) who turns out to be the Grand High Witch herself.

The witches' aim: to turn all children in England into mice with a magic potion. Luke, one of their first victims, is soon launched on a crusade to halt the scheme. And the film becomes a fast-moving action adventure told from the ground up. (Cinematographer Harvey Harrison does a great job.)

Roeg couldn't have assembled a better cast. Huston is superb. As a stylish and monstrous icon of evil, she treats strangers, minions and children alike with a haughty disdain. It's a gross-out treat to watch her change from snippy Miss Ernst into a bald and wart-ridden hag with a nose like a withered, rubbery carrot. It's even more fun to see her trying to fit her Anjelica Huston face back on.

Zetterling, lighting her cigars and utterly unfazed by Luke's ``drastic alteration,'' gives her explanations of witch lore just the right mix of gravity and playfulness. And Fisher, as fearless Luke, carries the film with his good humor, common sense and willingness to look on the bright side of things even after he's been turned into a rodent: ``No more school! No more homework!''

The supporting cast is equally strong. Rowan Atkinson (``The Black Adder'') is a perfect persnickety hotel manager. Bill Paterson (``The Killing Fields,'' ``Comfort and Joy'') is the ultimate disgruntled hotel guest. Anne Lambton's witch-with-ambitions rivals Huston's. Charlie Potter, as Luke's chubby and ever-hungry sidekick Bruno, puts away scones and dry-roasted peanuts like a pro.

On the technical side, Huston's Grand High Witch mask is a latex masterpiece. Jim Henson's Creature Shop doesn't quite pull off the miracle it's after with the puppet-mice versions of Luke and Bruno, but by that point viewers should be so caught up in the film they won't care. Stanley Myers' score is spooky and spirited.

Fans of the book may argue with Roeg and Scott's altered ending, but you won't get any complaints from me.

Magical, sinister and prankish, ``The Witches'' is a triumph.