THE WITCHES. (1966) A HAMMER FOLK HORROR REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

THE WITCHES. (1966) A HAMMER FILM PRODUCTION. ADAPTED BY NIGEL KNEALE FROM NORAH LOFTS’ BOOK, ‘THE DEVIL’S OWN.’ DIRECTED BY CYRIL FRANKEL.

STARRING JOAN FONTAINE, ALEC MCCOWEN, KAY WALSH, MICHELE DOTRICE, GWEN FFRANGCON-DAVIES, INGRID BRETT AND LEONARD ROSSITER.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

This is not my favourite Hammer horror film, as it’s a little short on sex, Hammer glamour and ginormous boobies, but it’s still a really decent, unsettling folk horror movie, which is one of my favourite sub-genres of horror.

Set in a little English village in modern times (well, the ‘Sixties), it stars Hollywood Golden Age actress Joan Fontaine (REBECCA, SUSPICION, JANE EYRE) in the lead role of Gwen Mayfield.

Joan is the sister of the Little Johnny Live-A-Lot also known as Hollywood Golden Age actress Olivia de Havilland, who died over the summer (yes, this summer!) at the staggering age of 104. What great longevity some of these old Hollywood broads had! Their male contemporaries rarely lived this long.

Anyway, Gwen Mayfield is a school teacher who takes up a post in a tiny rural English village called Heddaby. Her last post before this was in Africa, where her run-in with the witchcraft practised by the natives caused her to have a breakdown.

Her new employer is the strange and rather monosyllabic Reverend Alan Bax, played by Alec McCowen, who might be best known for his wonderful portrayal of a homicide detective, Chief Inspector Oxford, driven culinarily demented by a wife who’s been doing a gourmet cookery course, in Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (1972).

God Almighty, all the poor chap wants is a decent dinner after a hard day’s detecting, but the weird and sometimes inedible fare his wife serves up is barely enough to feed one of the poor quails who sadly died and found its way on to her menu.

Anyway, as for the Reverend Alan Bax, well, there’s a mystery there all right, but it will be a while before Miss Mayfield is able to determine whether he’s a friend or a foe in the strange situation in which she finds herself enmeshed in Heddaby.

Odd things happen in her new locale that makes Gwen wonder if perhaps her parish of superstitious villagers back in Africa isn’t too different from the quaint little backward-thinking village of Heddaby after all, where the locals favour healing with herbs over calling in a medically-trained doctor.

A teenage boy falls ill and is spirited away by his mother, just as a headless boy doll is found in a tree with a bunch of voodoo pins stuck all over him. The boy’s father is found drowned. A teenage girl is allegedly being abused by the grandmother she lives with and then the girl goes missing. There’s a very WICKER MAN vibe about the whole thing.

If Gwen hadn’t actively come up against witchcraft in her little African village, she might not now be so quick to come to the conclusion that the villagers of Heddaby are practising the black arts.

But come to it she does, and not only that. She also comes to another conclusion, that a young girl’s life is in danger (think Rowan Morrison), and that no-one’s efforts but her own can save the girl now…

I love Leonard Rossiter (RISING DAMP, THE FALL AND RISE OF REGINALD PERRIN) as Dr. Wallis, and Michele Dotrice (Betty Spencer, Frank’s long-suffering wife, in sitcom SOME MOTHERS DO ‘AVE ‘EM) as Miss Mayfield’s sort of maid-cum-cleaning lady.

Michele Dotrice, a terrific actress, and not just in comedy roles, also appears in two other fabulous horror films, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, which is very definitely a folk horror, and also AND SOON THE DARKNESS, a murder mystery which is very folky in its setting, in my humble whatsit.

I also love Kay Walsh, once married to film director David Lean, as Alan Bax’s bossy middle-aged sister Stephanie, a magazine writer and the type of woman who’ll wear wellies to walk the dogs and who tells people what they ought to do in any given situation without having been asked for her advice even slightly.

I would have loved it if, instead of magazine articles, she’d been an Agatha Christie-style writer of crime novels or murder mysteries, like Auriol Lee as Isobel Sedbusk in Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941), for her role in which superb suspense thriller Joan Fontaine actually won a Best Actress Oscar, incidentally.

Anyway, THE WITCHES is a tiny bit hokey but it looks gorgeous, and Joan Fontaine, sporting the most bouffant of bouffant hairstyles, is absolutely brilliant at looking shocked, surprised and frightened in it. Joanie channels her best Tippi Hedren (THE BIRDS) here, in her olive-green ensemble, and Kay Walsh is a dead ringer for dear old Bette Davis in her horror cossie.

There’s a smart cat called Vesper in it, and also a sort of wild, fruit-based orgy amongst the natives in which you’ll probably be praying, like me, for the participants to please keep their clothes on. You’ll enjoy watching this horror classic, I promise you. It’s great fun.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.

GHOST STORIES FROM THE BBC: THE SIGNALMAN, STIGMA AND THE ICE HOUSE REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

signalman 2

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS FROM THE BBC: THE SIGNALMAN (1976), STIGMA (1977) AND THE ICE HOUSE (1978). STARRING DENHOLM ELLIOTT, BERNARD LLOYD, KATE BINCHY, PETER BOWLES, JOHN STRIDE, GEOFFREY BURRIDGE AND ELIZABETH ROMILLY.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

The Signalman was based on a short story by England’s greatest novelist, Charles Dickens. It was penned the year after he almost died in an horrific train accident that killed ten of his fellow passengers and injured forty others. To the end of his days, the notion of train travel gave him nightmares, and no wonder.

Denholm Elliott does a superb job as the titular Signalman, who performs his train-related duties from a signal-box on a remote part of the line. His job is safety; ensuring the safety of the passengers and crew that pass by him daily, in the screeching steam trains that belch out the thick black smoke for which the Industrial Revolution was infamous.

I’m not sure what he does exactly. He doesn’t seem to be raising or lowering any barriers, or opening or closing any gates. His job involves telegraph wires, bells and flashing red warning lights. He sits in his lonely booth night after night, studying mathematics in front of his little fire to keep his mind from atrophying, with ne’er a living soul for company.

Until now, that is. A well-dressed gentleman known to us only as the Traveller, descends by a precarious dirt path to the Signalman’s booth, telling that same man that he was ‘drawn there,’ somehow. The lonely Signalman seizes on the opportunity to tell his congenial companion about a disturbing spectre that’s been haunting both him and this isolated little stretch of railway line for the past year or so…

I’ll tell you something for nothing. That there spectre causes at least one of the terrible accidents to which we are privy. I’m not at all convinced that he’s a good spirit, put it like that. The scenes where the Traveller strides briskly to his lodgings at night are gorgeous and so atmospheric. The whole short piece is steeped in atmosphere and a sense of slow-building, impending dread, with fabulous bleak scenery and the most unnerving sounds also. No wonder the poor Signalman feels like he’s going out of his mind…

STIGMA is a chilling folk horror that sees Katharine and Peter, an affluent, middle-aged couple with a surly teenaged daughter called Verity, moving to the countryside from, presumably, the city. A couple of workmen are already out in their garden, trying to remove an enormous stone from the ground because it’ll very much be in the way of Dad’s proposed new lawn.

Personally, I think that anything that size should be left well enough alone, as obviously it’s been put there for a reason. It has; it is, in fact, a menhir or a standing stone associated with a human sacrifice, in this case the sacrifice of a woman thought to be a witch. From the moment the workmen manage to raise the massive stone and its pitiful secret is revealed, Katharine’s life and maybe Verity’s too is in grave- excuse the pun- danger…

It’s pretty scary to find out near the end just how many standing stones there are in the area, and therefore just how many women were sacrificed as suspected witches back in the bad old times, which are not as far back as we might think. The whole landscape is dotted with these eerie structures. How many funeral pyres were lit back in the day, and how many times was the air rent with the hideous screams of the dying as they suffered in life the very torments of the damned…? It’s enough to give you the willies.

Anyway, here’s my little claim to fame. I met the lead actress, Kate Binchy, cousin of the late great Irish writer Maeve Binchy, several years ago in an Irish doctor’s surgery. We had a chat about how she’d once played Fr. Stone’s mother in the hilarious episode of clerical sitcom FATHER TED entitled ENTERTAINING FR. STONE.

She signed an autograph for me and I was thrilled with myself. At that time, I was unaware that, as a younger woman, she’d starred in STIGMA- and had whipped her bosoms out for that same part, as well!- but, what with me being Irish, her FATHER TED credentials were more than exciting enough on their own for me.  

THE ICE HOUSE is a very strange piece of work. I still haven’t even figured it out myself. A middle-aged man called Paul comes to stay at a very exclusive spa in an isolated part of the English countryside after his marriage breaks down. The spa is run by a sinister- and incestuous!- brother and sister called Jessica and Clovis.

They lavish attention upon Paul day and night. They wait on him hand and foot, they are never far away if he wants anything and they seem to have made his happiness and comfort their number one priority. He enjoys the saunas, massages and facials the spa offers, although he can’t help noticing when a staff member disappears suddenly, and that his disappearance seems somehow tied up with the little building in the wooded grounds called the ice house…

This is indeed a strange but very sexy and sensuous instalment of the Ghost Story for Christmas series. The heavy, erotic perfume from the red and white vines that climb and clamber up the ice house walls reaches Paul through the phallic-shaped cut-outs in his bedroom window, and the sister in red and the brother in white are so obviously lovers, even if we hadn’t already seen them kiss, that an aura of heady, forbidden sexuality pervades the whole piece. Oh, and what exactly are those two inbred weirdos hiding in that ice house? Don’t you know? ‘There is only ice in the ice house…’ Yeah, right, sister. And I’m Mother Teresa of Calcutta…

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com