Grow me a gown with golden down,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.
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in
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.