Filmed around the same time as Plague of the Zombies, Hammer’s The Witches is a colourful but slightly tedious occult thriller / folk horror film. The print on this Scream Factory disc opens with a British Board of Film Censors card that records that the film was rated “X” on its original release. Frankly, it’s now hard to fathom how any film this mild could get such a rating, but no doubt Hammer were pleased that they could use the X certificate in advertising. The film begins with a pre-title sequence set in Africa with the main character Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) rushing to leave a mission school and menaced by a local witch doctor. Traumatized by this experience, Gwen takes a job at a private school run by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) in the fictional English village of Heddaby.
In spite of the tranquil setting it’s not long before oddities start piling up. There is no active church in the village (unheard of for a country locale in England). Alan Bax reveals he tried to become part of the clergy but failed. The local butcher seems rather too fond of skinning a rabbit on the shop counter in front of customers. Two of the students, Linda (Ingrid Boulting, a ballerina and model who starred in Elia Kazan’s final movie The Last Tycoon) and Ronnie (Martin Stephens) seem to be the target of suspicion and cruelty by the villagers. Ronnie succumbs to a mysterious illness and falls into a coma; a doll stabbed with pins is later found in a tree. When Ronnie’s father goes to confront Granny Rigg, who seems to be involved in making some kind of bargain to send the boy away from the village, he turns up dead, drowned in a local pond with the imprints of bare feet in the mud around the water. African fetish dolls appear in Gwen’s room, triggering traumatic memories. Someone, it appears, is trying to push Gwen over the edge of sanity, in the service of a strain of witchcraft that is bubbling just below the surface of this perfect English village.
There is a simple and realistic tone to the direction that emphasizes the injection of the weird into the ordinary but that also drains the film of any frisson. The Witches is not entirely a horror picture, but more of a suspense thriller with occult trappings. A forerunner of future occult thrillers and folk horror films, the movie retains the novel’s underlying theme of the loss of tradition in the face of modernity. Ultimately, however, it suffers from its too-restrained and tepid approach, a prim and proper tone that detracts from what should be a creeping sense of menace. The slow pacing doesn’t help, mild incident languorously piling on mild incident, leading to one of the silliest, least scary occult rituals in cinema history. The ridiculous choreography and staging in this sequence has to be seen to be believed and it unfortunately undoes everything the film has strived to build up prior to the climax.
Director Cyril Frankel also directed Never Take Sweets from a Stranger for Hammer, which is a far superior film to this one. His filmography is dominated by episodes for several British television shows, including cult series The Avengers and UFO, and the crime/action series Department S and The Protectors.
Legendary genre writer Nigel Kneale wrote the screenplay for The Witches, based on the novel The Devil’s Own (which the film was retitled in North America) by Peter Curtis, which was a pseudonym for historical fiction author Norah Lofts. This is one of Kneale’s weakest scripts, showing little of the deep imagination that went into his best work like the Quatermass series and The Stone Tape. One gets the impression that this was a job-for-hire and that his heart wasn’t really in it.
On the plus side, Hammer’s talent for colourful photography and production design shines through in The Witches, and there are some fine performances. Joan Fontaine essays the central role with conviction, though she apparently took the financial failure of the film to heart as she brought the initial idea to Hammer. The Witches turned out to be her last screen performance.
Flesh tones are lifelike, colours are vibrant, and many small details are visible, such as fabric textures. The film has some lush and pretty exteriors shot in Hambleden, Buckinghamshire that the transfer shows off admirably. This is the first time I’ve seen this film, but I have no doubt this is likely the best it’s looked on home video to date.
Audio Commentary With Filmmaker/Historian Ted Newsom – This feature-length commentary track has a cauldron load of information delivered in a breezy style, and is well worth a listen.
Hammer Glamour (44 min.) – A short documentary on the women of Hammer. Features interviews with Hammer actresses like Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, and Madeline Smith. The inclusion of this feature seems out of place on this disc, given that The Witches has none of Hammer’s famous sex symbols and has little to no eroticism in it. Directed by Hammer expert Marcus Hearn and narrated by Damien Thomas (who played Count Karnstein in Hammer’s Twins of Evil), Hammer Glamour wasn’t made for this disc, but it’s nevertheless an interesting little doc that covers quite a range of the studio’s output.
Trailers – One trailer for the U.S. version of the film (The Devil’s Own) and a double feature trailer of Prehistoric Women and The Devil’s Own.
Still Gallery – Simply a series of production stills in a gallery that runs for about 4 mins.
Reversible cover art – The artwork on both sides of the cover is based on original poster art, the reverse having the American title, The Devil’s Own.
The Bottom Line
A lackadaisical progenitor to folk horror cinema, The Witches is a very minor Hammer film, for completists only, but is presented in a skimpy but attractive package and a vibrant transfer.