This is my entry in The Great Villain Blogathon co-hosted by the wonderful Speakeasy (http://hqofk.wordpress.com/), Shadows and Satin (http://shadowsandsatin.wordpress.com/), and Silver Screenings (http://silverscreenings.org/). You can go to any one of their sites and find a list of all the fantastic entries that you should make a point to read.
I hope you know everything that I do for you all. I was going to talk about the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008), but thinking about the villains who have stayed with me over the years, I came back to the one who frightens me the most out of all film antagonists. The Child Catcher from the 1968 musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Why the Child Catcher? The short of it is he scares the ever loven crap out of me. The long of it is…well, I’ll get into that below.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by the movie’s director Ken Hughes and novelist Roald Dahl (author of many famous children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches). It is a loose adaption of a book by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Dahl’s script deviates greatly from the original Fleming novel with many characters and storylines existing only in the movie and large junks of the book being totally absent. The Child Catcher is one of those Dahl fabrications. The Child Catcher is also not the main villain. Actually, he doesn’t appear until an hour and forty minutes into the film, and when he does, he only has 5 to 10 minutes of screen time. As I will explain, he hardly needed any more time than that to sear himself into my mind forever.
Our story is set in the early 1900s and follows two British children and their father, Professor Caractacus Potts (played by Dick Van Dyke). Caractacus suffers from the not-having-a-British-accent-even-though-everyone-else-in-his-family-does-disease (aka, this came after Mary Poppins, 1964, and Dyke refused to attempt a British accent again). He’s also an eccentric inventor with a lot of enthusiasm for his work. His inventions sadly never bare fruit. Eventually, the three obtain an old junk car that was destined for the scrap heap. Potts quickly restores the car, and the three go on a beach picnic with their new friend Truly Scrumptious (played by Sally Ann Howes), an upper-class woman who’s father owns a candy factory.
The first half of the film consists of Potts trying to raise the money to buy the car. The second is made up of a story Potts’s tells his children during the picnic. In said story, the awful Baron of Vulgaria wants Potts’s new car, which can move through the water and fly through the sky in Potts’s story. Potts’s equally eccentric father (played by Lionel Jeffries), who takes trips to places like Alaska and Africa via a small shed, is mistaken for the professor and taken against his will to the fictional country. Our four heroes are off to save him and arrive in a land where there are no children. The Baron’s wife hates children and has issued a law banning them. When it’s discovered that two new children have arrived in Vulgaria, the Baron and Baroness send out soldiers and a special man to capture the kids.
A dastardly horse and carriage with a cage in the back then bursts out of the castle and rides down to the town. The man driving is dressed all in black. He’s gaunt, has a long nose (all the better to smell children with), long black hair, a skewed top-hat, and a terrifying, villainous smile. He has one purpose. To catch children, throw them in the castle dungeon, and throw away the key. He is the terrible Child Catcher as played by Robert Helpmann.
Helpmann was an accomplished Australian dancer, actor, theater director, and choreographer who by all accounts loved children. It may be odd that a man who adored children is playing a character who has scared the bejesus out of them for so many decades, but Helpmann plays the part with relish. It’s not what you would call an understated performance. Who am I kidding? It’s wildly over the top and very much a cartoon caricature in how he’s written, in how he looks, and how he’s played.
The Child Catcher walks around with a sinister walk and a giant net. He entices children with the promise of free candy and ice cream before capturing them in his small iron cage. The frightening smile hardly ever leaves his face while he does his job. He’s not trying to hide who he is. He’s not as richly layered as other villains, he wears everything there is to him on his sleeve, but that’s why he’s so creepy.
The man he is inside is reflected in how he looks. He’s just plain evil through and through. He’s more than a villain. He’s an otherworldly being. He’s the creature under the bed. He’s a boogieman of the silver screen. He’s a character who, in his few short scenes, is able to create a chilling, memorable monster who kids will remember well into adulthood. Yeah, he’s not a subtle creation, but I don’t think that’s the intent. He’s designed to be a nightmare. No more, no less. One of the tools he walks around with is a pole with a metal hook attached for Christ sake.
It’s a testament to Helpmann’s performance that the Child Catcher has made a number of lists for the most frightening villain/character of all time. He made Entertainment Weekly’s 2008 list of “50 Most Vile Movie Villains,” a couple Empire Magazine lists, a Digital Spy list, Total Film’s “Greatest Movie Villains” list, and a CBBC (Children’s British Broadcasting Corporation) poll voted him the scariest villain from a children’s book (despite him not actually being in the original novel). I’ll admit he doesn’t frighten me quite as much as when I was a kid, but he still scares the willies out of me whenever I see him.
What do I think of the rest of the movie? It’s pretty good. I liked it a lot more than when I was a kid. Everyone in the cast deliver solid roles, even the actors playing the kids do a good job. The characters are silly and corny sometimes, but they are always fun and never not interesting. For all the crap I and others give Dick Van Dyke about his “British accent” in Mary Poppins and his lack of one in this, he’s a fantastic actor. He gives a charming and natural performance in this film that’s a joy to watch. All but a song or two are catchy classics. It’s the Sherman Brothers, so how could you expect anything less. While he apparently hated the finished film and while stories make him out to be a pain in the butt to work with, Ken Hughes’s direction is superb. The film looks extremely modern in some places, the movie not feeling as 60s-ish as other musicals from around that time. Its cinematography is also gorgeous. It may have too leisurely and loose a plot, but it’s still a load of fun.
I’ve been avoiding this film for a long time. That’s partially down to the Child Catcher. I’m so glad I gave it another go, and if you’ve never caught it, I would give it a watch. Its characters, songs, jokes, direction, and villains all work, and after the credits roll to one more happy rendition of the title song, you’ll be checking your closet for the Child Catcher before you dare set foot in bed.