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.