Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Witches

Grow me a gown with golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in
This 1966 Hammer chiller has slipped into obscurity over the years, elbowed out of the reference books by Nicholas Roeg's popular children's film of the same name, and among European Cult Cinema fans, it's often confused with a 1966 Italian film called The Witch, and a 1967 Italian anthology film called The Witches (notable among trivia nuts for an early Clint Eastwood appearance). Even Johnathon Rigby's otherwise comprehensive study of British Horror films, English Gothic ignores the film, a shame considering it's one of Hammer's more underappreciated films of the '60's, and for the studio, a rare contemporary-set Horror.


Gwen Mayfield, a shy retiring middle-aged woman retreats to a sleepy postcard English village to recover from a nervous breakdown following a traumatic incident at an African mission. Taking up the post of headmistress, Mayfield's respite is short lived when the strange behavior she observes in the villagers leads to the discovery of occult practices and black magic... The Witches didn't originate with Hammer but was passed to the studio by Seven Arts when the film's lead actress and star, Joan Fontaine bought the rights to the novel The Devil's Own. Hammer commissioned Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay and the Quatermass creator turned in a typically intelligent and tasteful script, which was careful not to antagonize the BBFC, who were less than enthused about devil-worship and child sacrifice. In fact, the film rarely references satanism at all, the high priestess' magical dabbling is all about extending her life rather than being an Omen-style lap-dog for the Devil.


Kneale's screenplay is perhaps a little too pastoral for most people's tastes, the pace is leisurely and the film looks positively quaint in comparison with similar rural occult films like The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan's Claw. But perseverance is rewarded with a rousing climax when Mayfield finds herself an unwilling participant at the sacrifice of a teenage girl, surrounded by trance-induced villagers who debase themselves with an infernal sticky concoction (which could be mistaken for excrement), and there's a wonderfully eerie moment when Mayfieled is confronted by a child's doll wriggling into life. Joan Fontaine was 49 when she made the film and still retains some of the ethereal beauty seen in Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion. She's quite fine in her role, but is overshadowed by Kay Walsh as the grand-Witch, utterly charming and ruthless in equal measure. Of the supporting players, look out for two future stars of British sit-com - Michele Dotrice, the long suffering Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and Leonard Rossiter, from Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin fame (or the inquisitive Russian scientist Dr. Smyslov from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Interestingly the film was directed by Cyril Frankel whose previous Hammer outing Never Take Sweets From A Stranger also featured children in peril from adults.


The Witches is one of Hammer's most exquisite looking films, beautifully shot and thankfully Optimum's DVD features an excellent 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the print used in great shape. A few scenes exhibit some softness, but this is mostly during some process shots. The audio is fine, no issues here. Extras include a trailer. All told, The Witches is no long lost Hammer masterpiece, but anyone who likes their films cut from the same cloth as the Pan Book of Horror Stories will find this is a treat.

13 comments:

  1. Hey, Wes. This looks like another one for my list. I watched The Nanny a couple of nights ago and thought it was great. I can't resist a 'Pan'-style horror tale.

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  2. I hope you like it Jon, it's a minor Hammer but not without its charm. Rosemary's Baby followed hot on its heels, and the film looks old fashioned next to the modernity of Polanski. Nigel Kneale's screenplay is an interesting one to mull over - I couldn't decide if Kay Walsh's high priestess had turned to occultism in frustration for being a middle-aged spinster (a reflection of the typical male chauvinism of the day), or her practice of witchcraft was an extention of her feminism, a liberation from the traditional values of her peers...

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  3. Sounds a bit like Romero's 'Jack's Wife'. I love that sort of ambiguity, especially the way Kneale does it. You know it might be the supernatural but there are social and psychological undercurrents motoring it along.

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  4. Never got around to this one Wes, great stuff as always and my interest in seeing this sooner rather than later has been piqued.

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  5. Jon, I thought of the Romero film as well...

    Thanks Mart - it's worth digging out of the box if you can grab the time.

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  6. I've never seen this either - but it sounds wonderful. Great write up!
    Interesting also that you should group this with the likes of The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan's Claw. Did you see Mark Gatiss's History of Horror on BBC4? He referred to these films as 'folk horror' - a beautifully evocative title. Think I really need to try and get hold of a copy of this.

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  7. Many thanks James. Yes, I like the term folk horror as well, and I would add Witchfinder General with The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan's Claw. All three films are featured in Rob Young's book Electric Eden, an excellent overview of British Folk music...

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  8. Hey, Wes. The Witches popped through my letterbox this morning - looking forward to viewing it!

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  9. Jon, I hope you enjoy it and I didn't cause you to waste your money, there's precious little of it going around these days ! I'll be looking foward to your commentary on it.

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  10. I did indeed enjoy it, Wes - a great film for a gloomy Sunday afternoon. I have to say that the sacrifice ritual was a bit strange - with its choreographed dance routine!

    I see what you mean about the Kay Walsh character. I also thought I detected a hint of lesbian subtext in there as well!

    Speaking of character actors in your review, Wes, did you spot the young Rudolf Walker of Eastenders fame in the first scene?

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  11. Jon, I totally missed that and I do watch Eastenders so shame on me. Yes, your right about the Kay Walsh character - she's rather fascinating I think, such is the strength of Nigel Kneale's writing. And yes, the sacrifice sequence does have some weird choreography but I did like the weirdness of it. Any idea what that foul looking concoction was that was doled out to the supplicants ?

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  12. As you said, it looks like excrement, and I couldn't get that thought out of mind as I was watching. I was really surprised that scene stayed in, actually. Maybe no one at the time saw the connection.

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  13. Sounds like one to watch in the right mood...I'll keep an eye out for a chance...

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