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Dark Chocolate: Wonka at 40

In David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en, an obese man pays for the sin of gluttony by being force-fed to death. The results are shown in gruesome detail. But the concept isn’t totally original. We already saw a slew of young gluttons being punished in ironic ways particularly befitting their vices in 1971.

The film was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which, over the course of an hour and a half, an overweight Bavarian is washed away down a chocolate river, an obnoxious gum-chewer is inflated to four or five times her normal size, a vicious young madam is sent to her fate down a garbage chute, and a wannabe cowboy gets shrunk down to the size of his TV-saturated brain. Unlike in Se7en, we never see the decaying corpses – we’re assured they’ll be de-juiced or, with any luck, rescued before they reach the incineration stage – but we take the same crude pleasure in watching sinners get their comeuppance.

Every good fairy tale, on analysis, boils down to horror. Creepy old wolves pretend to be grandmas to prey on little girls, witches plot to cook and cannibalize young children, and evil queens hire hitmen to assassinate beautiful princesses. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka is full of equally and delightfully vile details.

The decidedly sadistic nature of Gene Wilder’s candy-maker has not been lost on observers over the forty years since the film was released. He’s mesmerized by the sight of greedy Augustus Gloop caught in the pipe as he muses, with a glint in his eye: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.”

“Boat ride from hell”

But his delirious pleasure in seeing people suffer is only just beginning. With Augustus on his way to be turned into marshmallows, Wonka takes his remaining guests on the boat ride from hell. In a nightmarish scene that could only be inspired by a heady concoction of hard drugs, the factory tourists are whizzed through a tunnel of psychedelic colours and past a montage of lizards, worms, fanged insects and decapitated farmyard animals. Meanwhile, Wonka appears to zone out as he groans in increasingly loud and frenzied tones: “Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?”

Critics have occasionally noted these dark and, admittedly, bizarre aspects of the film and speculated that children are bewildered by it. But no. Children love it. Adults who didn’t grow up with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may well find it bewildering, but just as kids get the often-sinister, eccentric world of the entire Roald Dahl canon, they get this film. I was hooked as a youngster, and I am still attached today.

Part of the attraction, perhaps, is the satisfaction of seeing the obnoxious, the selfish, the bullies brought to justice. But a large part of it – as Dahl knew very well – is the charm of evil.

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About David L Rattigan

David L Rattigan is a British-Canadian freelance writer with interests ranging from religion, film, and language. His published writing includes Leaving Fundamentalism (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008, ed. G Elijah Dann), and articles for Third Way magazine and The Guardian’s Comment is Free website. He shares his love of Hammer horror at

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