The Witches Blu-ray Review
For me, The Witches almost but doesn’t quite work.
1SRP: £22.99“Witchcraft? Somebody having a little dabble? Why yes.”
PictureEncoded via AVC and shown here in its correct aspect of 1.66:1, The Witches makes an impact on Blu with a sharp, colourful transfer that looks quite spangling and new for a film hailing from 1966. The film has been restored, and it shows.
The picture has grain, and it looks natural. Not too thick, not clumping-up into noise and not artificially slathered-on. DNR is not a problem, then. The texture produced is nice and film-like, and looks authentic to me.
Joan Fontaine looks pale throughout, though this is surely intentional. She is supposed to be recovering from not just one, but two nervous breakdowns, when all said and done. But her makeup and her eyes certainly stand out. Skin-tones elsewhere are reliable and rich and varied. The palette, on the whole, is decently vibrant and redolent. We have some lush greenery, some very earthy mud, splendidly vivid flowers and voodoo masks, and clothing can be pretty eye-catching too. Primaries are strong without being overly saturated. Reds are dazzling, but look terrific. Of course this is not a bloody film, but there is Gwen’s red coat and plenty of scarlets and crimsons used in the art direction to give it that gaudy Hammer gloss. That coat seemed always, to me, to be on the verge of smearing, but it never actually did. The skinning of the rabbit is suitably lurid, and the tribal effigies and totems are also brightly presented. The conclusion becomes quite startlingly bold and colourful, with lots of writhing about amid torchlight and some bizarre patterns, artifacts and costumes, especially that of the coven-leader’s with that almost medieval robe, with its ceremonial coat of arms and the antler-headdress. The transfer handles all of this madness with style and consistency.
Contrast keeps things balanced in the interiors, which reveal plenty of detail and shadows that are never overpowering, and exteriors that incorporate the brightness of the weather, and the cleanliness of Arthur Grant’s steady and reliable camerawork. Blacks might not be impenetrable, but they aren’t swamping any detail and they certainly conspire to add some fine depth to the image, enabling this to be an engrossing and often captivating picture. As I say, the detail is very good, with fine resolution on even the finest of objects.
So the imagery is actually quite sharply rendered, yet without any unwarranted artificial aid. It is also quite three-dimensional and boasts an interesting level of visual depth that I did not expect. Watch Gwen’s blue mini cruising around the village. Look at the group scene in the schoolyard as they construct the Leaning Tower of Piza. Look at the ridiculous Sabbath held at the end, with its wacky dance and cavorting nuttiness. Have a gander further up the village to the more distant houses when the headmistress goes to call on Linda. Or even when Gwen peers out of the crack of her door down into the corridor outside and sees a nurse moving around down there. Characters moving around the corners of a house, or standing on a brow overlooking the schoolyard gain substantial objectivity within the frame. This is anything but a flat presentation, and it certainly gives the movie a distinct new lease of life.
My PR disc had a couple of stutters in it, early on, but I suspect that this is simply down to this copy and that retail prints will be fine. Beyond this, I encountered no banding and no aliasing, and no damage to speak of. Overall, this is a very good transfer that brings the film to a vivid sheen that genuinely bears the hallmarks of having been lovingly restored.
SoundThe audio mix comes via LPCM 2-channel mono.
Immediately we have that rather clichéd tribal beat pounding away quite furiously. This has enough depth to be good voodoo-ish fun. The rest of the score comes over reasonably well, although Richard Rodney Bennett’s work is not as memorable, nor as exciting as James Bernard’s would probably have been. There is some clarity to the instrumentation, which is nice, and the frenetic, orgiastic ritualized climax has some power and spread to it. The organ recording has some depth and jangling solidity to it. The stingers, when they come, aren’t as paralyzing as they are in other Hammer offerings, but the track still gives them an edge without going overboard.
Dialogue is clean and clear. Some reasonable regional accents populate the track and some strong female voices. Fontaine and Walsh have a lot to say and they do so without any muddling or muddiness. It is amusing to hear Leonard Rossiter providing some medical advice. The voices of the children and the laughter in some scenes has clarity and doesn’t get all cloudy and squashed together. Some girls’ shrill giggling sounds a wee bit tinny.
The sound of car doors closing has a reliable metallic clunk. The impacts upon wooden doors and the sudden frightening assaults by masked effigies also carry a thickened and agreeable charge. The slamming of a blade into a chopping block, and the swift slicing of butcher knives being sharpened have a keen, um, edge to them. The sudden stampede of sheep, however, sounds just as amusing as it looks, with lots of bleating and tumbling going on. The barking and scampering of the two German Shepherd dogs comes over with pleasing alacrity.
Although not exactly an adventurous sound design, Studio Canal have cleaned-up the track and given it the sort of sprucing that makes it sound quite lively, even if it can’t quite disguise its vintage. For what it is, you really can't complain. It's old, it's largely unambitious, but it gets a shot in the arm here.
ExtrasFor this Double-Play (including a DVD copy) release, we don’t get much in the way of supplemental value.
But, credit where it is due, the 42-minute feature Hammer Glamour is actually really good. I’m not sure quite how well it fits in with this particular film, but I enjoyed the company of Martine Beswicke, Maddy Smith, Valerie Leon and, best of all, my absolute favourite, Caroline Munro. These sit mainly together to discuss their careers, but there are individual vignettes that allow each some privacy to reminisce. Jenny Hanley is very amusing about her stint inScars of Dracula … especially with her anecdote regarding the cuffs matching the collar! One of Hammer’s first horror scream queens, Vera Day, also gets a fair chance to talk about her tenure as a vintage vixen. Obviously, they each have a slightly different take on the Hammer experience, what with its infamous desire for nudity, and how they coped with it. Maddy Smith talks about how much she was against it, and the tactics that her co-star Ingrid Pitt, who had absolutely no inhibitions whatsoever, taught her to swiftly develop the sort of assets that the studio and the audiences demanded – eating yogurt!
This is a prime choice of girls. Cult favourites and one or two sharp-minded individuals who call a spade a spade.
An excellent feature and quite a nice change from the usual bunch of Hammer gurus. Although, to be fair, I would have liked a proper making-of documentary and/or commentary as well. Most Hammer BDs get a fair bit more than this ... so, sadly, this only gets a 3 out of 10.
VerdictFor me, The Witches almost but doesn’t quite work. I can forgive Hammer their shortcomings more than most, but I am afraid that this fails because it drops the ball all too abruptly and obviously around half-way through, and never manages to pick it up again. The conclusion is laughable and that is a damning thing to say about a film written by Nigel Kneale, and performed with such dedication.
This story has been done elsewhere and done much, much better. Night of the Eagle is the clearest example beyondCity of the Dead, and I would recommend both over this any day of the week. But then there is also Rosemary’s Babyand The Wicker Man, which tinker about the occult and dark deceptions with similar intentions, though infinitely superior results.
On the plus side, Studio Canal’s UK disc has a very fine transfer, which highlights the colourful photography of Arthur Grant and the pleasant summery aspect of the film. Detail is excellent and it is clear that some care and attention has gone into it. Sadly, we only get the one extra … but even if it really has nothing to do with the film, itself, it is a great one. The Hammer girls are always good to see and their reminiscences of these glamourous days of flesh ‘n’ fangs are a joy to hear. The Witches is a gallant failure, but the release is probably still worth it for this mini-doc anyway.
Hammer-fans are going to want this in their collection no matter what, but this really is one of the studio’s less satisfying entries and exhausts its good stuff by the half-way mark.
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