Lee Gambin’s Secretly Scary column finds the malevolence in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
Horror movie tropes exist within many other film genres, from straight down the line character driven melodramas all the way right through to family entertainment geared towards children. And of course, when these family films main concentration is fixed on the plight, struggle and lessons taught to children, then the horror can be used to heighten the fragility of the young (as represented by the masked, faceless men in black in ET: The Extra Terrestrial) or even be at the heart of childish selfish evil, as the next film in discussion handles beautifully.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), a musical fantasy based on a book by childrens author Roald Dahl and with songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, presents us with five children who are the focal point of the story. One of them is good and the remaining four are bad eggs. The good child, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) is a sweet boy who is fatherless but in a loving but poor household surrounded by bedridden grandparents and a laundress mother who worries about the downtrodden but loving boy. Charlies difference is not only marked by his poverty and loneliness, but by his goodness and kindness. He is an honest and good-natured boy, but not completely flawless either. Like Pinocchio, little Charlie Bucket is capable of going off the straight path. Of course, by the end of the picture, he stays true to good form and triumphs.
All of Charlies peers in the film that arent the four central bad eggs(which we will come to in detail) seem to exist at a distance from Charlie; they dont interact with the poor boy, leaving our likeable hero to really only have two central connections: one with his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), a whimsical old fool who even though is deep down good hearted and loving towards Charlie, is careless and opportunistic while the other connection is based on the allure of the titular Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), an eccentric but elusive confectionary mogul who runs a beloved chocolate factory in the heart of an unnamed town (the film is shot in Munich, but this is clearly to establish the far away Neverland the film wants to convey). Wonka, in turn is an untapped father figure for young Charlie Bucket much like the dewy skinned alien in ET: The Extra Terrestrial is to Elliot and The Terminator is to John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. However, Willy Wonka is presented to us as a dark, almost sinister character. He sits in the middle of charm and elegance and downright menace and sickly kookiness. He also sits in the middle of truth and lies; he is the master of illusion and, much like Mary Poppins before him, is obsessed with firmly taking heed of rules and responsibility. Gene Wilder does wonders with all this and it truly is an inspirational performance where every single nuance and gesture is done with idyllic flair and razzle dazzle.
Charlie Buckets trust is earned by the end of the film, but not without its rocky road. However, all turns out good for our sweet kid protagonist, however, his competition, the aforementioned four bad eggs are not so lucky.
When the plot kicks in, the film gradually introduces us, one by one, to four vile children. Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) is a gluttonous piggish boy whos dismissal and exclusion from the group comes early on. It is obvious that he will be the child first killed off as he somehow comes to represent the exact physical mold of what Darwinism teaches us will not survive. He is overweight, lazy and slow, and this is an absolute hindrance in the survival of the fittest. Violent Beauregard (Denise Nickerson) is a precocious brat who is obsessed with chewing gum, but more importantly and unhealthily obsessed with competition. Not taking heed in advice or instruction causes her to turn blue and blow up into a round human blueberry. Violets crass competitiveness makes her an ugly child and therefore her physical transition becomes an extension of such repulsive behavior. Her bad habit (incessant gum chewing) completely consumes her. Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) is possibly the most horrible of the children. Veruca is a nasty piece of work; a self involved brat whos greediness results in her demise. A highlight of the film is Verucas solo song I Want It Now; a lively energetic number that starts off as a list song (Veruca lists the things she wants: a bean feast, ribbons in her hair, ten thousand tons of ice-cream) then gradually becomes a cry of dominance and relentless greed. Her grandiose desires go from performing baboons to wanting the world, today and tomorrow. This violent greed proves to destroy Veruca and her descent into the furnace chute is quickly followed by her pathetic father (Roy Kinnear) diving in after her. His life is completely empty without his daughter. Grandpa Joe states, Well Mr. Salt finally got what he always wanted, Veruca went first. Its an odd comment, clearly in there for gags (one of the many exceptionally adult themed gags that pepper the script) but it holds a truth; Mr. Salt is so ruined by the demands of his monstrous daughter that after shes gone there is not more need for him he purely exists to serve her; like a manservant to a wicked powerful oppressor.
In Willy Wonka, the children are boss and the film makes a clean statement about parent-child relations, making a loud comment about the importance of limits and the power of saying No. The final child of the group is Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), a loud, brash little terror, completely devoid of any humanity. His obsession with television is unlike Carol-Anns in Poltergeist who channels the TV People and is seduced by them becoming victimized by evil forces, Mikes love for television acts as a means of escape that makes him even more anti-social and self important. Each of these children are monstrous realities, and in this fantasy world of a brightly lit chocolate factory their awfulness is heightened.
The film can be read as another retelling of The Twelve Little Indians, a story archetype used namely in slasher movies. Here it is used much in the same way as one by one kids are killed off, either metaphorically or realistically. Either way, it is all done with style and class; an intelligent condensation of the importance of listening, taking heed in advice and being honest and good like little Charlie Bucket who eventually gets to inherit Wonkas factory. Charlie is so good that he even shows concern for the others: What about the other children Mr. Wonka? Even the most repugnant crass children such as Veruca and company are a cause of concern and worry for the innocent beauty of Charlie Bucket.
The vile children in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory represent different aspects of the monstrousness of childhood; the unattractive, selfish and self-involved element of pre-adolescence, a world completely consumed by the benefit of the self. A violent end comes to these horrid children; Agustuss near drowning then being stuck in a piping system, Violets painful transformation, Verucas descent into a furnace and Mikes fragmentation and consequential shrinking all summarize the emptiness of these childrens lives and the throwaway nature of their supposed evil. In Willy Wonka, the mean kids are not at all threatening, they are more of a nuisance like flies at a barbeque, but like flies need to be swatted in order for pleasantry to unfold.
The core reasoning behind the childrens demise is the solid fact that theyre consumed by emptiness – a world of materialism, bad habits and greed for nothingness. Charlie, however, is hungry for happiness, yet takes all woe in his stride and moves forward. His selfless acts (such as using the tiny bit of money he makes from doing a paper route to buy his family a loaf of bread among other things) cement his difference from the others. He even teaches his Grandpa Joe a thing or two. Whereas his second father figure, Willy Wonka himself, who has a palpable dark side and shows little to no dismay at the consequences of the bad children, is like the Pied Piper of lollipop land who, through the honesty of Charlie Bucket, learns that absolute goodness can indeed come from children.
Wonka himself has adopted childlike men in the green haired/orange skinned Oompa Loompas, who act as the moral majority. These diminutive helpers to Wonka are refugees from a fabricated homeland that was under attack by violent creatures and throughout the movie they become a Greek chorus of morality play. At the coda of each childs (and respective parents) dismissal, the Oompa Loompas sing message sonnets, cautionary tales all to do with over indulgence, bad habits, greed and anti-social behavior. In the song for Verucas elimination, they state that it is Mother and Father to blame for a childs repugnant behavior, and the kids in this film do have bad influences as parental figures. These elders are an assortment of both pathetic and weasel-like fools, and just as repellant as the children: Violets father is a shmuck completely obsessed with making a car sale even in Wonka-land, Mikes mother is pretentious and full of complaints, Mr. Salt (as established earlier) is a pathetic simp under the thumb of his demanding daughter and Mrs. Gloop (Ursula Reit) doesnt seem to mind her son overindulging.
All in all the film is a masterfully played cautionary tale both transfixed on childhood cynicism and selfishness as well as treating ill-mannered children as disposable pests. In relation to the realm of the evil child subgenre of horror cinema, director Mel Stuarts musical take on Roald Dahls slightly offbeat creepy story truly hits home; it delivers mean spirited children, but unlike most cinema of the les enfante terribles these children have no real sinister power, instead they are at the mercy of someone who is completely insane and potentially violent – Willy Wonka himself.
For more exhaustive coverage of this film and hundreds more, be sure to order Lee Gambins 800+ page book We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970s