Cyril Frankel, 1966
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell
“Give me a skin for dancing in.”
Gwen is working in Africa as a missionary when she is caught in the middle of a tribal rebellion and is brutally attacked by a witchdoctor. Some time later, after she has recovered in England, she’s offered a job teaching in a small country school by wealthy local Alan Bax and his sister Stephanie. Though she first regards the village of Heddaby as idyllic, she begins to notice signs of witchcraft — for instance a boy falls ill, Gwen finds a voodoo doll, and a man is suspiciously killed — and before she knows it, she has a relapse and breaks down again, to recover a year later, convinced the citizens of the town are dangerous witches that must be stopped before a young girl is sacrificed.
One of Hammer’s most neglected films, The Witches fits in a strange place in their oeuvre. It’s not quite as theatrically supernatural as their other witchcraft films like The Devil Rides Out or To the Devil a Daughter, but borrows plenty from their more underrated suspense films such as Paranoiac and Hysteria. Released just two years before Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Witches really doesn’t even feel like a Hammer film, but is in the vein of producer Val Lewton’s films, particularly The Seventh Victim, where the horror is subtle and understated and it’s often not clear whether the threat is real or in the mind of the protagonist.
This especially doesn’t feel like a Hammer film, because it lacks any of the studio’s recurring cast members or major stars, but benefits from a great — and final — performance from Joan Fontaine. Her character of Gwen is similar to her turn as the persecuted heroine in Rebecca more than 20 years before: innocent and sweet, but canny, aware of the danger that may befall her even though no one quite believes her. Another Hitchcock actress, Kay Walsh (Stage Fright) acts as a very strange foil as the antagonist Stephanie, who is not up against Gwen, but wants to recruit her to the cause. Walsh is overshadowed by Alec McCowen (yet another Hitchcock actor, most recognizable from his brilliant turn as the inspector in Frenzy) as the strangely perverse Alan, a man who pretends to be a priest and is clearly haunted by some unspoken trauma.
These demented siblings are right out of Hammer’s suspense films — their neurotic excess is on the same plane (if not as grandiose) as Oliver Reed’s in Paranoiac — and the seemingly rational Stephanie is every bit as nuts as her brother Alan. SPOILERS: In the film’s big twist, which occurs basically ten minutes before the movie is over, is that Stephanie is the head of a local coven and wants to sacrifice a teenage girl in order to attain youth and immortality. Or some such nonsense. Gwen’s assault is a powerful specter that looms over the film and it’s a shame that the second half of the film doesn’t exploit this nearly as well as the first, where there are such quietly symbolic scenes as a local butcher enthusiastically skinning a rabbit before he seems it to Gwen. She remarks that Heddaby seems “a nice place to get over things,” and when hiring her, Alan intentionally exploits her experience in Africa, pushing her to the point of near hysteria.
The Witches exists in a strange place in terms of occult cinema history, landing in the middle of two waves, but not quite fitting in with either. It was certainly influenced by the excellent, understated British horror films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — such as Night of the Demon, The Innocents, The Haunting, and Night of the Eagle — but also acts as a quiet precursor to the more explicit films later in the decade like Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Rides Out, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Wicker Man, and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Like Hammer films The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies, as well as the slightly later The Oblong Box, it maintains a strong connection to the colonial themes that seem to haunt British horror at around this time.
Nigel Kneale’s (Quatermass and the Pit, The Abominable Snowman) script — from Norah Lofts novel The Devil’s Own — originally had elements of black comedy that were later removed, which is a real shame, as I think it would have made the film’s absurdities a little easier to swallow. In addition to the unbelievable twist — where Stephanie becomes Gwen’s champion and initiates her into the coven, hoping they can perfect the ritual together — the ritual sequence is pure camp. The “orgy” is really a group of fully clothed, middle aged people performing what looks like an avant-garde dance piece.
Thanks to these two blunders, The Witches just can’t compare with the weirder and more stylish Eye of the Devil, another nearly forgotten supernatural horror film made in Britain in the same year. With that said, it’s definitely worth watching for any Hammer completists or anyone who enjoys understated occult horrors — of which there are definitely not enough of in the world. Pick it up on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray in the UK.