DOC’S JOURNEY INTO HAMMER FILMS #82: THE WITCHES [1966]



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UK

AKA THE DEVIL’S OWN

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD

RUNNING TIME: 90 min

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

Schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield is forced to leave Africa because of a native rebellion led by witch doctors, and is left traumatised by the events. The Reverend Alan Bax offers her the post of headmistress in the peaceful village of Heddaby. There, she’s made very welcome but cannot understand why everyone seems to object to two of her teenaged students Ronnie and Linda courting each other, especially Linda’s grandmother Granny Rigg who seems to mistreat her. Then Ronnie falls into a coma the same time as a headless doll impaled with pins is found, and Ronnie’s father tells Gwen that a year before his wife got shingles after a row with Granny Rigg….

One of the more obscure of the Hammer horrors despite usually being available for home viewing, The Witches is a film which I only caught up with the other evening. I didn’t expect much from it, but actually it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The low-key, present day mystery chiller is certainly different from the usual Gothics, a little reminiscent of City Of The Dead but at times coming across as a partial forerunner to The Wicker Man, but while it doesn’t have the richness and depth of Robin Hardy’s masterpiece, it has enough merits of its own. It’s perhaps a little too gentile for its own good, and climaxes with one of the most unintentionally funny Satanic ritual scenes ever filmed, but generally I don’t think that it’s a picture to be ashamed of and is one I feel is somewhat underrated. The plot is decent and provides at least a couple of surprises, the approach is intelligent [at least until the last 20 minutes], and it’s all quite unsettling in a very subtle way, evoking a distinct creepiness out of the quaint village setting and gradually working up a reasonable feeling of paranoia, the latter allowing star Joan Fontaine, in her last film role, to partially revisit some of the elements of the two performances for Alfred Hitchcock in Rebecca and Suspicion which begun her career. It’s no neglected classic, but still has many qualities.

Her career on the slide, Fontaine purchased the film rights to Norah Lofts’ novel [written under the nom-de-plume of Peter Curtis] and brought the project to Hammer in 1962, where it was eventually added to the roster of films co-produced with Fox, Seven Arts and ABPC. The screenwriter was Nigel Kneale, who was also busy at work on the script for the third of the Hammer Quatermass films which were adapted from his TV serials, Quatermass And The Pit. Fontaine had pick of director and chose Cyril Frankel who had made such a good job of Never Take Sweets From A Stranger back in 1960. The village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, was the filming location for the fictional Heddaby, while interiors were shot at Bray. In her autobiography, Fontaine arrogantly complained about the “primitive” working conditions, the small size of her dressing room, the awful food and the unprofessional British actors she had to lower herself to work with. Kneale’s script was partly poking fun at witchcraft but all his blackly comic touches were removed from the film just after it was completed. Hammer were rather embarrassed when it got an ‘A’ certificate and got the BBFC to raise it to an ‘X’. Intended to be released on a double bill in the UK with Hammer’s next film Prehistoric Women but ending up comin out with spy drama Death Is A Woman, The Witches was retitled The Devil’s Own in the US because the Italian picture le streghe which translated as The Witches was about to come out. It did mediocre business.

I don’t tend to read any reviews of a film I’m about to review but I do recall reading write-ups about The Witches some time ago saying that it has almost no scares, but I don’t think that’s entirely true and the ending of the very first scene certainly gave me a slight chill. We’re somewhere in Africa, and the first shot is of the exterior of a house where a voodoo doll looms into the frame. Teacher Gwen is packing as she’s about to leave, and her two native helpers are terrified, but Gwen dismisses their fears. The doll previously seen is spotted jammed into a table, then natives burst in led by a guy in an absolutely gigantic and very unsettling voodoo mask which understandably causes her to scream. Red smoke dramatically fills the screen as we get the titles, though the film is then pretty quiet for at least its first half. Everyone seems to welcome Gwen’s arrival in Heddaby – no village folk suspicious of outsiders here – though Alan’s confession that he’s not actually a priest at all but just likes to wear the dog collar sometimes is a little odd, and soon other questions raise themselves. Why does a black cat keep hanging around Gwen? Why does nobody want young Ronnie and Linda to go out together? Why is Linda’s grandmother cruel to her? There’s a rather obvious and lazy mistake here, as Ronnie tells Gwen that he saw Granny Rigg put her granddaughter’s hand in the shredder of her washing machine, and when Gwen goes to visit her Linda’s arm is in a sling, but the next time we see Linda in what is obviously meant to be just a day or two later, her hand and arm are perfectly fine.

O well, it’s still quite nicely done if pretty slow moving, and I just wish that Gwen’s point of view had been maintained for the whole film as it provided a bit of an edge. Things gradually get weirder as Ronnie falls ill, his mother whisks him away, and his father goes to Granny for some answers and is found drowned in a nearby wood, and it’s really nice to spend some time in a different forest to Black Park for a change. Then Gwen has a flashback to her African horror and wakes up in a rest home with amnesia, rather too quickly and conveniently getting her memory back so she can escape and unearth the truth about Heddaby. It’s a pleasant surprise that some characters that appear to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are eventually revealed to be the opposite, but the only possible reaction is laughter when, after a really creepy little moment when a doll seems to be uncannily moving until it’s revealed that a cat is inside it, all the Satanists gather in a tiny area and smear lemon juice and then some brown substance which looks like shit on themselves as they dance to third rate variety show-styled choreography. One wonders if Hammer planned to show an orgy but chickened out, as things begin to get raunchy but are then suddenly interrupted. The supposed climax, though it does make logical sense, is over almost before it’s begun, depriving us of an exciting finish, and the seemingly tacked on happy ending which leaves a hell of a lot unexplained makes one wonder if Kneale’s original conception was tampered with more than sources indicate.

Until the ending, gore is absent unless you count when the butcher enthusiastically skins a hair in one of the film’s most obvious conveyings of slight estrangement, and the most it can muster in term of thrill scenes is Gwen nearly trampled on by out of control sheep, but there’s something extremely disquieting about The Witches nonetheless which is the mark of a good chiller no matter how flawed it may be in some other respects. Gwen’s beneficent teacher helping to give Ronnie a leg up in a victimising world is almost a prototype for Kes, and there remains some characteristic Kneale material in scenes where there’s an attempt to psychologically explain the appeal of witchcraft, the writer again showing his interest in trying to find rational explanations for things, while this film intriguingly continues the idea of British colonial guilt that was also in The Plague Of The Zombies [with which – come to think of it – The Witches shares quite a lot in common with] and The Reptile. And is this the first of the many occult films to take up the theme of aging witches/Satanists seeking to reincarnate in the bodies of children? Frankel may not be interested enough in scaring the viewer with all this for some, but he helps to provide a certain mood nonetheless, more restrained than, say, what Terence Fisher or John Gilling would have provided but still definitely there, if sometimes subtle. The naturalistic look works well for this particular story too.

Fontaine rather overacts some of her earlier scenes, seeming so on edge that it’s a wonder her character is able to get any job at all, but grows considerably in the part, as if the film was shot in sequence though that obviously wasn’t the case. Kay Walsh also stands out as Alan’s sister, a journalist who decides to help Gwen find out what’s going on, and there’s another slightly odd appearance from Martin Stephens, the child actor who had made impressive appearances in Village Of The Damned and The Innocents. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett provides a fine main title piece with an eerie orchestral motif playing above drum and xylophone patterns, and a solid score throughout providing some of the barnstorming when required. While it certainly has its issues, most notably its weak final act, The Witches is sinister and strange and is considerably better than you may have heard. It’s a shame that its commercial failure meant that Hammer didn’t follow it up with any similar pictures [though I guess you can make connections to The Devil Rides Out].

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 1856 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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