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October 2013

The Witches

cast: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Michele Dotrice, and Leonard Rossiter

director: Cyril Frankel

90 minutes (12) 1966
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Studio Canal blu-ray region B / DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Witches

Roald Dahl's The Witches (1983) is a children's book turned into a 1990 film, by director Nicolas Roeg, featuring Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson. This review is not about that film. Neither is it about The Witches Of Eastwick (1987), with Jack Nicholson and Cher, the 'hubble-bubble toil and trouble' witches from Macbeth, the historically creepy Pendle witch trials, or Nicolas Cage's medieval hokum Season Of The Witch (2011). This is about a modest Hammer movie produced in 1966 that has more to do with the Midsomer Murders and English covens of the Dennis Wheatley variety. It could be argued that even by the time of its production all those sinister occult cults were already a little dog-eared through over-familiarity, although they'd shortly get a major reboot, re-imagined in New York through the hands and vision of Roman Polanski into Rosemary's Baby (1968).

For Hammer, it was maybe something of a coup to get Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield BA, the schoolmarm lead character. After all, she was big Hollywood glitz. Sister of Olivia de Havilland, she'd starred alongside Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire before her iconic role in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), opposite Laurence Olivier, then Hitch's suspenseful Suspicion (1941), with Cary Grant. Admittedly, she'd not hit such heights for a while, and was on the cusp of her fiftieth year, but still radiant, her name retaining a sniff of box-office magic. She was reportedly so enthused by this project that she'd initially bought up the film rights of The Devil's Own (1960), novel from Norah Lofts, who'd written the book under the alias Peter Curtis, then brought it to Hammer, and effectively co-directed it. Perhaps a not-entirely wise decision, as it turns out.

Gwen arrives in a tourist-pretty Buckinghamshire village. Heddaby in the film, but in reality Hambleden - also a location for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and Johnny Depp and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999). It soon becomes apparent that all is not well. She's in a fragile and vulnerable state, having been traumatised by her experience of voodoo rituals during her spell as teacher at an African missionary school. Surely working for wealthy brother and sister, Alan and Stephanie Bax, as headmistress of their small private family-run school will straighten out her head?

But there are sinister lurkings beneath the "remarkably attractive" village life. Alan (Alec McCowen), supposedly the priest, admits that actually, he is not. He's a weak fantasist, the church has been derelict for 200 years, and the close-knit rural locals have been "inbred for centuries." Like the investigating Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man (1973), Gwen starts to suspect there's some pagan nastiness going on, with her 14-year-old pupil Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting) seriously at risk. The old Wiccan religion was woman-centric, so it's appropriate that the film's four central characters are female. A powerful Kay Walsh, as formidable writer Stephanie, steals screen-time from Gwen - another reported cause for Fontaine's dissatisfaction with the end-result. Then there's Granny Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies) as a weirdo healer with a surveillance-cat; and the teenage lovers, doll-fixated nubile Linda getting goo-goo-eyed over bright-kid Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens).

When her missing doll reappears - minus its head, and impaled by voodoo-pins, Ronnie falls into a coma, an "unnatural sleep," only to be spirited away from the village. Because sacrificial virgins have to be, well... virgins! The mysterious death of Ronnie's father tips Gwen over into a nervous breakdown in a recurrence of tribal drums and the suspect attentions of dodgy Dr Wallis (Leonard Rossiter). So far, so well-paced in a leisurely Midsomer Murders kind of way, with a psychological mystery edge.

The intimate interiors were shot at Bray studios, one of the final Hammer films to be done there. And the on-board presence of genre-legend Nigel Kneale tempts high anticipations. He was busy adapting the novel pretty-much concurrent with his ongoing work for Hammer's wonderful Quatermass And The Pit (1967). But, as he later admitted, such expectation would be disappointed, with glitches already becoming apparent.

Once out of rehab, her memory restored, Gwen hitchhikes back in Heddaby, and this time it's personal. The local butcher sharpens his blades. Linda is hidden, somewhere, but where..? It's Lamas Night. She sees night-time locals sneaking into priest-hole vaults beneath the church ruins. Surprise! Surprise! Stephanie is wearing a candelabra-headdress as the high priestess. She plans to body-switch with Linda using a 14th century text as trigger mechanism, to gain "a new skin for dancing in," a "second lifetime." But the climax sabbat-scene is campy and way over-the-top, with messy twitchy choreography by what appear to be rejects from Michael Jackson's Thriller video, only less convincing. Walsh endures its ineptitude with enviable dignity, her demise well-telegraphed. And there's a happy ending, of sorts...

This review is not about a great film. It's a minor work that plays with the sub-Dennis Wheatley English covens thing that director Terence Fisher would rework more effectively in Hammer's The Devil Rides Out (1968). It promises more than it delivers. And what it does deliver, among its period charm, is only mildly diverting, but it's a film for Hammer completists only.

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