The Witches Review
For me, The Witches almost but doesn’t quite work.
“After the blow is struck, give me a skin for dancing in.”
One of Hammer’s least well-known films, 1966’s The Witches, directed by Cyril Frankel, who broke taboos with 1961’s Never Take Sweets From A Stranger, has a lot going for it until fumbling the demonic ball by overstretching itself and, ultimately, making a fool of itself. Having been freshly restored and given a cinematic airing at the BFI London Film Festival to boot, the opportunity to re-evaluate one of the studio’s most regularly dismissed offerings now comes about with this UK blu-ray release from Studio Canal on region B.
This really was a case of screenwriter Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale, who had already done great things for Hammer, and would do so again, wanting his cake and eating it too. With terrific work done on the studio’s SF offerings of The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass 2 andThe Abominable Snowman, his twist on witchcraft and occultism should have been something to savour. Indeed, if he had worked from one of his own original stories, this may well have been the case. But his adaptation of the book The Devil’s Own by Peter Curtis (the title that the film retained for its US release), The Witches takes a slightly skewed look at the occult in seeking both to legitimize its potency for modern-day necromancy and cause some pastoral outrage at the same time. Hammer really only made three properly satanic films – this, the excellent The Devil Rides Out and the appalling To The Devil A Daughter – with their concentration very mainly centred upon vampires and Frankenstein’s various creations and a fair amount of Mummy meanderings. Kneale’s ownQuatermass and the Pit would successfully combine SF with satanic myth and legend, proving that he could, when he really set his mind to it, deliver the goods with wit and invention with regards to the more arcane of material. As we shall see, though, with The Witches, he tackles too grand an idea and yet fails to bring enough to it, almost as if he was intending to deliberately belittle it. Certainly his skills as a writer should have ensured the film gained and held on to a unique and theologically inquisitive attitude of delicately probing stone-turning. His gift was in combining the ancient with the modern, entwining two vastly different perspectives to create clever new histories and scintillating philosophies about the birth and the direction of Mankind. Two years prior to The Witches he had brought the brightest ideas to Nathan Juran’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men In The Moon, which he co-scripted with Jan Read, and brought some forward-thinking and humour to a film that is admittedly hamstrung by poor FX-work.
For The Witches, he writes intelligently enough to create mood and a couple of fine characters, and to set a tone of macabre conspiracy, but both he and director Frankel seem to lose their way and forget to properly build in any suspense, leaving audiences altogether too nonplussed to care about the outcome and, worse yet, more than slightly amused by a heinous scheme that ended-up being rather farcical.
And, under Frankel’s handling, they fashion one of the least Hammer-like films of the studio’s lurid catalogue. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they could actually wrestle some frights and a sense of menace from it at the same time, but despite an intriguing premise, a thunderous prologue of tribal intensity, and a languid hint of dark sexuality that taints the village atmosphere, they allow too much to settle into cold indifference, and then cater for a conclusion that is far too neatly tied-up, and horribly and unforgivably twee. This really doesn’t sound like Nigel Kneale, does it? And working with a different director, this may not have been the case at all. Imagine him collaborating with Val Guest or Roy Ward Baker – men who understood the deeper resonances that he strove to uncover.
Elements from many previous other genre movies worm their way in, from Hammer’s own A Taste of Fear to Village of the Damned, from Dr. Terror’s House of Horror (the Roy Castle voodoo episode) to Night of the Eagle, and featuring some frayed threads from Night of the Demon, and they add up to a narrative that has instances of flipping and flopping about like a dying fish. After a first act that is quite superbly crafted, the film then freefalls through clouds full of irritating conceits and irrationalities.
Early vagaries, though, are appreciably creepy and off-kilter, and the film benefits from great location work, a deceptively bright veneer, and a clutch of strong performances that do, at least, hold the attention.
Joan Fontaine’s Gwen Mayfield has been working as a missionary in Africa, but she has somehow incurred the wrath of the local witch doctors and, during a tribal uprising, is violently forced to leave. The bizarre things she witnesses there, however, lead her to having a nervous breakdown. After recovering back in England, she gets the job as the headmistress of a school in the tranquil village of Heddaby, and finds the country life to be quite agreeable. She seems to get along fine with everyone, and she quickly gains the acceptance of the children and the locals. A strange black cat seems to adopt her, and she notices how angry the villagers appear to be whenever young Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens, who was so brilliant in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents) attempt to court the lovely Linda (Ingrid Brett, who would easily make any teenager’s head spin). When Linda doesn’t come in to school one day, Ronnie secretly informs her that the girl’s grandmother, who is also her guardian, is cruel to her, and he actually saw her turn her hand in the mangle as a punishment for hanging-around with him. Gwen decides to investigate further, and soon the village is prey to voodoo-like dolls festooned with pins and bodies found floating in the lake. Poor Ronnie falls into a coma and is whisked away to hospital, and Linda disappears.
A nightmarish web of lies and dark secrets totally enmeshes surroundings that once seemed so idyllic.
Gwen finds an ally in Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), an outspoken and intelligent woman who writes articles for the Sunday papers. Her brother, Alan (Alec McCowen), is the man who employed Gwen at the school. The Bax family are fairly well-heeled and seem to have a lot of sway in the running of the village. Stephanie is astute and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and when Gwen approaches her with suspicions that somebody is dabbling in witchcraft, the columnist thinks it might make for an interesting topic that they could collaborate on.
Oddly, Stephen Bax even wears a clerical dog-collar, and we hear the sound of a church organ in the village. Yet, he is no priest and the ecclesiastical music that we hear is actually a recording that he has made from St. Paul’s Cathedral. There actually is no church in Heddaby. So just what is his interest in such theological matters? The finding of the voodoo-like dolls with pins stuck into them, and their heads removed, is an overt reminder of Gwen’s experiences in Africa and, in a way, there was some scope here to implicate her own involvement in the mysterious deeds as possibly some sort of twisted holdover from her breakdown there, almost as though she has unwittingly become a witch herself and is suffering from a demonic split-personality … but the plot keeps things far less cunning or complicated than that, and pretty much sticks to precisely the path you expect it to, its twists and turns, when they arrive, not once delivering any effective frisson of surprise because you have already guessed them. However, the image of items of exotic witchcraft in the beautiful and tranquil English countryside is a neat juxtaposition, rather like the use of voodoo dolls and masks in the classic Plague of the Zombies, and the film does offer some instances of palpable evil, although these, too, are kept on a tight chain.
When a body is fished out of the lake, its muddied form is carried back through the village, uncovered and ghastly, Universal-style through a gathering throng of onlookers who all seem to take great interest in it as it passes them by, including the children. They would be agog at the sight of a fresh corpse, naturally, but there is something quite uncanny and sinister about the half-smiles and the way that people lean over to get a better look at who it is.
Although Kneale and Frankel are maintaining that Ronnie and Linda’s assignation is the root cause of the troubles, there is an undercurrent of secularism, the village closing ranks in order to drive out those who aren’t willing to abide by the rules. This sort of thing was obviously once a powerful weapon, whether witchcraft was involved or not. Nowadays, if your family was being victimized in such a way, I’d like to think that you would have the backbone to simply turn the tables on your persecutors by giving a couple of choice targets a damn good kicking. Go on, then … rustle up a spell with my boot pressing down on your windpipe!
Gwen has experienced this sort of abuse before in Africa, so it is not at all surprising that her hackles are raised when headless dolls are found secreted in the boughs of trees. But even with her powers as headmistress – and she is definitely one of the most likeable and understanding that I’ve come across in movies of this type – seem unable to exert much authority when it comes to protecting her kids from whatever higher power is lurking in the shadows and pulling unseen strings.
Another unusual step is a sequence involving a startled flock of sheep that come hurtling towards a stricken Gwen, injuring her in their woolly stampede and inadvertently obliterating some crucial evidence that she had discovered. It is not often that creatures as innocuous and harmless as sheep are used as a form of threat, and the sequence is possibly a little too daft for its own good. A missed opportunity is the inclusion of two German Shepherd dogs who seem to be set up as a duo that could be seen as being either heroic or satanic. But, sadly, once the plot turns into its more active cycle and the gloves are off, they are completely forgotten about, which just doesn’t seem right after their formidable set-up. Surely, a more poetic denouement, or at least a more exciting finale would have involved them in either capacity.
But one thing that Frankel certainly gets right and deserves as much as Kneale for is his allowing of his female cast to shine.
Hammer aren’t usually regarded as offering their female stars great characters to play, and especially not leading roles. The likes of Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers, and Valerie Leon in Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, Yutte Stensgard in Lust for a Vampire and Barbara Shelley in Dracula Prince of Darkness andQuatermass and the Pit, and Martine Beswicke in Dr. Jeckyll and Sister Hyde obviously stand out from the crowd of heaving bosoms – but this is really down to their glamour, sexuality and the deliberately provocative titillation they bring to the screen. Angharad Rees in Hands of the Ripper and Jacqueline Pearce in Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile certainly went above and beyond the usual screaming and pouting, creating highly memorable, sympathetic and haunting characters, but The Witches is definitely a rarity in this regard because it most certainly deviates from such a typically exploitative path and populates its rural tale of secretive witchcraft and mindgames with a cast comprised mostly of females. With Joan Fontaine, famous for appearing in Rebecca and Suspicion for Hitchcock, in practically every scene, and running the emotional gamut from start to finish, and Kay Walsh providing stunning support, and a few surprises along the way, this is totally a woman’s show and, uniquely for a male writer and director, refuses to condescend or to patronise. Thus, this is a story about the ladies and for the ladies.
Michele Dotrice, who would go to play Betty, the long-suffering wife of Michael Crawford’s accident-prone Frank Spencer in TV’s classic Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘em, crops up as Gwen’s young housemaid. But the wizened crone that is Granny Riggs and played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies is superb as Linda’s spellcasting harridan of a guardian. Expertly switching from nice-as-pie to giving the evil-eye, the screenplay cements her as somebody to be properly feared, yet then botches things during the all-too trite conclusion when neither Kneale nor Frankel are daring enough to give us something tangibly wicked to chew on.
The male contingent is headed-up by McCowen who, if you’ll pardon the pun, is much too easily cowed to be effective in a role that we are already deeply suspicious of. Leonard Rossiter even takes up a fair chunk of screentime during the second half as Dr. Wallis, the man charged with looking after Gwen once events in Heddaby conspire to rekindle that nervous breakdown. But, as good as he is, this a role that is utterly squandered and, sadly, all rather unnecessary. Kneale obviously saw potential in the audience not knowing who they can or cannot trust, but somehow he allows everything to become too damn obvious from the get-go. This is the sort of story that desperately needs red herrings and false-trails, yet it completely fails to develop any such tricks of the trade successfully enough to fool us even for a second.
One thing I find a bit too convenient for the story is the entire prologue sequence and how it sets Gwen up for the witchcraft to come. How much of a coincidence is it that a missionary schoolteacher should encounter voodooism and hexes in Africa, and then come back to the quaint and lovely English countryside to find herself embroiled in a similarly demonic web of witches, curses and sacrificial plotting? It’s asking a bit much, isn’t it? She is to devilry what John McClane is to terrorism.
The way that Kneale adapts the novel puts the story more in the vein of an episode of The Avengers or The Prisoner,leeringly queer but a little less avant-garde. The village clearly isn’t right, and there are many people who are obviously coveting secrets and acting in all-too suspicious ways. He taints it all with subterfuge and Hitchcockian psychological dilemmas. When Gwen is incarcerated in a nursing home, her mind fractured by this second ordeal of occult intimidation, the film takes on that niggling aspect of we believe her, but nobody else does. But, like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which phenomenally grinds to a total halt just when it should become truly electrifying, the film then suffers a terrible lull in the suspense as we simply sit around and wait for the story to begin anew after this little breathe-easy chapter ends. Whoever is responsible for this element – the original author, Kneale or Frankel – they should have hung their head in shame. It effectively renders a film of two distinct halves, with the second struggling to recover the pace and momentum established before the psychiatric take-a-break session.
This was the last major film that Joan Fontaine made, and she is very effective in it despite the plot becoming increasingly dafter and more ramshackle as it goes along. She is nice and practical, and dedicated to doing the right thing. She also has a couple of convincingly overwrought neurosis to contend with. However, I am actually surprised to notice that, at one point, we can clearly see through her flimsy nightgown. I’m not complaining about this at all, but it seems a little strange that she and Frankel would permit this, however brief the moment might be, considering her age, her acting stature and the style of the film, itself. But she carries herself with assuredness and goes through a variety of emotional states with considerable gusto. Even if the ending leaves a lot to be desired, we do care about what happens to her, at the very least.
The story is very similar to John Moxey’s evocative and moodily shot City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel)and, quite surprisingly, once the jig is up, it also acts like a dry run for Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, although ultimately the reasons for this elaborate “game” are quite pathetic and are sure to leave you scratching your head in bewilderment.
But, visually, this should be applauded. The film really benefits from not looking at all like any other Hammer production. Oh, those glorious interiors are just as lush and the art design is still as economically elaborate as ever, from the always reliable Don Mingaye, but this is a sunny, outdoorsy type of film that likes to move around a bit. Even when things are taking place in the house, or the school, or the nursing home, the mood is much lighter and more airy than the majority of the castle set yarns that sprouted-up at Bray, Black Wood or Elstree. That oft-seen Euro-tavern and village combo is conspicuous by its absence, as are Michael Ripper’s hoary old whsikers. There are no buckets of Kensington Gore, no heaving cleavages, no familiar faces from the studio and no hellish squall of a score from James Bernard. (The score, here, comes from Richard Rodney Bennett and has some fine moments, including some frenetic, voodoo-inspired tribal beats that pretty much capture the sixties Caribbean flava.)
Despite its rural setting, the tone is very modern which, considering the subject of witchcraft, is a deft touch, though one that even Val Lewton had regularly brought into play. The film also feels very safe, almost like the more timid alternate cut of a much more disturbing and taboo-breaking brew. It is as though Hammer wanted to make something controversial, yet got cold feet at the last minute and suddenly watered everything down. If you think about Kneale’s script and the incantations being uttered during the climax, there is even something of an Ed Gein-like approach that is being hinted-at (we even see butcher knives being sharpened and readied or an unspeakable act of depravity) … but this doesn’t work in view of how the eventual ritual is supposed to take place. So there you have the literal evidence of there being two intended variations being worked-upon during the climax. But with shreds of both remaining, the conclusion just becomes even more ludicrous.
The great Richard Matheson would adapt Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and everything in it would eclipse what we see here, proving that Hammer could bash out an occult chiller with considerable panache and power when the moon and the stars were in the proper alignment. They would fudge it all over again, and with far worse results in To The Devil A Daughter but there were many reasons why that project was doomed even from the outset.
You won’t catch me knocking the release of any Hammer film on Blu, especially ones as little seen as this, and I would love to really promote The Witches as being something special, which it is considering how franchise-based the studio had become by the mid-sixties, but despite an amazingly strong female cast, an unusual screenplay and a very quirky series of set-pieces, this is really for the more determined and committed collector. Sporadic moments of eeriness do not make up for a plot that doesn’t really hang together and an atmosphere that veers all over the place and ultimately has you shaking your head in embarrassment. It really is the final act that lets the side down, and is possibly the reason that most critics and most Hammer devotees tend to dismiss the film so readily. Although Frankel tries his best to create some wild abandon and wanton occultism, the frantic scenes of orgiastic ritualized frenzy are so completely at odds with all that has gone before, and so badly choreographed – naughty yet extremely tame at the same time – that the climax becomes sadly laughable. Such a shame. The first half of the movie is actually very good. We gradually detect unease and veiled madness beneath the picturesque charade of the village. The mystery certainly thickens with our sympathies having no hardship falling in with Ronnie and his family and our suspicions regarding various other members of the community darkening the more we see of them. Yet once the masquerade is over and the masks are off, the story blunders and bluffs its way through a catalogue of black art idiocies and unexcitedly over-acted silliness.
With The Devil Rides Out, Terence Fisher was able to stage a huge Sabbath, and various evil mass activities of resolute conviction (even if we actually see him trying to edge out of one particular shot!) with aptly devilish aplomb, but Frankel does not have the skill to pull his ritual sequence off with anything other than warped ineptitude. There are some good ideas in here, but they don’t amount to much and the film becomes little more than a forgettable pot-boiler that goes tepid much too quickly.
Ultimately, The Witches is a brave failure. I concede that it is worth watching for the bold performances from Fontaine and Walsh and the interesting use of the countryside and the various locations, but still something of an oddity and a disappointment that feels like two separate films clumsily bolted together.
Despite their enjoyable hi-def renaissance, I would put this one down for Hammer completists only.
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