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Director: Cyril Frankel
Cast: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell, Leonard Rossiter
Length: 91 min
Rating: BBFC 12
Disks: 2 (1 BD, 1 DVD)
Label: Studio Canal
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English: LPCM Mono 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Known primarily for their Gothic horrors, Hammer Film Productions nevertheless managed to make a number of lesser-known, but quality thrillers, comedies and adventure films which occasionally demonstrated greater subtlety than one would have thought possible. One of the things that set The Witches (1966) apart from most of Hammer’s other second-tier films is its literary pedigree. The intelligently subtle screenplay by the great Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit) is an adaptation of the novel, The Devil’s Own by Norah Lofts, another great British writer of crime and historical fiction working under the pen name, Peter Curtis.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about The Witches—a film that deals with a woman’s growing paranoia that her new community might be a coven of witches—is that it came out two years before Rosemary’s Baby.
The Witches tells the story of a middle-aged school teacher who, after suffering a nervous breakdown at the hands of a witchdoctor in the wilds of Africa, is given a post as Head Teacher at a school in a rural English village. Bad karma seems to follow her and before long, she begins to suspect that some of the mild-mannered villagers may be practicing witchcraft. As subtly inexplicable things begin to happen, the teacher’s paranoia grows until she suffers another nervous breakdown. Are her suspicions real, or the product of an unhinged mind?On the surface, the premise of a woman being driven crazy by fear that her community may be plotting against her via the powers of witchcraft, very much resembles that of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and to that extent, it’s interesting that Hammer got there first. But the resemblance ends there, for on a deeper level, the two films are not just fundamentally different, but are polar opposites in their worldview. I regard Rosemary’s Baby is a fundamentally cynical film. Rosemary, after all, resigns herself to raising her demon baby, even after learning the truth. And how many times do we hear Sidney Blackmer proclaim, “God is dead! Satan lives!”…? The Witches, by contrast, being a Hammer film, embraces an old-fashioned, almost Edwardian innocence. The witches are destroyed, God prevails and everything is right with the world! This seemed to be the case with any Hammer film in which direct references to God as the main protagonist are made, as in The Devil Rides Out of two years later. It’s always fun to contrast these types of films with the downright nihilism of some of Hammer’s Frankenstein films and even their Quatermass films.
The acting in The Witches is all uniformly solid. As usual for a Hammer production, even the smallest parts are taken by top British character actors of the time, which lends the film much regional authenticity. Among these is a teenaged Martin Stephens who was so extraordinary as a youngster in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and in Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned. But the film ultimately revolves around the sheer charisma of its American star, Joan Fontaine who delivers a wonderfully open-hearted performance, full of charm. She is a star through and through, but in the best possible sense.
Director Cyril Frankel, who previously helmed Hammer’s Never Take Sweets from a Stranger—a film daringly ahead of its time as far as subject matter—here does a competent job telling the story, but never offers anything special as far as directorial flair. Certainly, he never manages to distill the sort of tension that a director like Polanski could with this type of material. That is a shame, for it turns an otherwise solid production into a slightly pedestrian one.
Happily, this is one of Studio Canal’s better restorations of a Hammer film, if still not on the level of Quatermass and the Pit. The image overall has a pleasant sharpness, but does not look “sharpened.” And, while there is a subtle layer of film grain present, I suspect that DNR was applied, (though with greater restraint than in Dracula: Prince of Darkness), for there is a slight smoothness to some of the surface textures, particularly on faces. I don’t want to make too much of this, since it wasn’t that bothersome, and the overall experience of watching this blu-ray was a pleasant one. Colors are natural and organic-looking. Contrast fluctuates a bit, but this seems to stem entirely from the film print. All in all, this is a substantial upgrade from previous home video releases, and I must commend Studio Canal for not over-restoring it, or trying to “improve” some of the more obvious rear projection shots.
The LPCM Mono track copes admirably with the demands that some of the louder musical passages place on it. Dialog is clear, hiss is not a problem and the sound overall is pleasantly full and bright. Like the video, it has not been over-restored and remains true to its source.
There is only one extra feature on this release, which may seem like short measure, but it is so enjoyable that it’s almost worth getting the blu-ray for its sake alone. The feature in question is a 42 minute documentary directed by Hammer historian, Marcus Hearn entitled, Hammer Glamour. As one can guess by the title, the film celebrates the voluptuous beauties that graced Hammer’s productions from the early 1950s though the mid ‘70s—among these Madeline Smith, Martine Beswick, Caroline Munro, Vera Day, Jenny Hanley, and Valerie Leon. Now, a documentary like this could have easily been a fluffy tribute piece, but Hearn never lets it devolve into that. Instead, he gives us a thoughtful series of interviews with the said ladies, who are so intelligent, thoughtful and candid that I was compelled to watch from beginning to end, even at 3 in the morning. Reading the closing credits, I was surprised to learn that the narrator is none other than Count Karnstein himself, Damien Thomas, still in full possession of his mellifluous voice.
Hammer completists and even casual fans will want to pick up Studio Canal’s new blu-ray of The Witches. For those new to this film, it is a pleasantly entertaining little supernatural thriller, but with the supernatural elements kept distinctly Val Lewtonesque. And, while it’s always worth getting to know Hammer’s more under-appreciated output, the best reason for the unconverted to see this film is to be in the presence of a middle-aged Joan Fontaine, still extraordinarily beautiful, delivering a very fine performance as befits a classic Hollywood star.