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Witches, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Dual Format BD/DVD
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Directed by: 
Cyril Frankel
Joan Fontaine
Key Walsh
Alec McCowen
Leonard Rossiter
Gwen Ffrangcon Davies
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This review contains plot spoilers.

Hammer Film Productions took on this Anthony Nelson Keys produced English Home Counties occult thriller at the behest of fifty-one-year-old former Hollywood star and Hitchcock blonde Joan Fontaine (“Rebecca” [1940], “Suspicion” [1941]), who’d bought the rights to the recently published novel “The Devil’s Own”  -- a title which was retained for the film’s US release -- intending to turn it into a star vehicle for herself, during some difficult years when her career had started to considerably wain with the passing of her youthful star profile. Released in 1966, “The Witches” rarely rates more than a passing and usually dismissive mention in even the most detailed summaries of Hammer’s 1960s output. Perhaps simply the fact that this rather sedate, slow-moving thriller was released in the same year as several of the company’s most esteemed classics has led to its subsequent eclipse, but the often damning assessments of several of the key members of the production can’t have helped: for although benefiting from the considerable directorial skills of Cyril Frankel, who’d been approved by Fontaine beforehand (‘we got on like a house on fire’) on the strength of his work on a previous film he made for the company -- the now acknowledged masterpiece “Never Take Sweets from a Stranger” -- the Hammer top brass was not particularly enamoured of the results either. Also unhappy was the author of the original novel, the distinguished historical novelist Norah Lofts, who wrote this and her other thriller/mystery/crime novels under the pseudonym Peter Curtis, to distinguish them from her more serious work. When asked by Anthony Hinds, after a screening of the finished film at Hammer House, to contribute a written piece towards Hammer’s press publicity, she declined, in a politely worded letter which nevertheless made it clear that she ‘deplored’ what she had seen and that it would be counterproductive towards ‘what small reputation I have […] built up over thirty years’, for her to be associated with it. Both Frankel and the screenwriter/adaptor of the source novel, Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, had expressed dissatisfaction with certain elements of the story, although they seem to have clashed over how to handle the depiction of the Black Magic-practising coven at the heart of it -- Kneale favouring a comedic satire on the absurdity of their practices and Frankel believing the subject needed to be treated more seriously. Perhaps the biggest pall though, was cast by Fontaine herself some years later in her autobiography, in which she complained of the amateurishness of the production, condemning Hammer’s unprofessionalism and the primitiveness of its facilities to boot.

There is indeed a lot that's wrong with “The Witches”, and what does go right with it is to some extent undermined by our knowledge that, only a few years later, films such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Wicker Man” would take similar material and create out of it some of the true enduring classics of the horror genre  – a fact which merely serves to emphasis the inherent redundancy of the Hammer approach, even in the years when it was producing some of its own greatest classics, like the following year’s “The Devil Rides Out”. While the nature of Dennis Wheatley’s occult related material allowed Hammer to play to its strengths, “The Witches” screenplay hints at all sorts of much darker, conflicted themes and subtexts which are sufficiently apparent to the discerning viewer as to build up a degree of intrigue and mystery, but which are never ‘cashed in’ come the supposed climax, which is one of the most lamely staged and poorly realised of any in the Hammer filmography.

That intrigue starts after a borderline absurd-yet-weirdly-disquieting opening prologue sequence in which Joan Fontaine plays prissy but well-meaning missionary school teacher  Gwen Mayfield, working in darkest Africa but forced out of the country during a Mau Mau-like tribal rebellion led by native witch doctors, who smash down the doors to her wood hut classroom with a grotesquely phallic, life-sized voodoo talisman, and do something to her that’s never explicitly alluded to but which is evidently unspeakable enough to send her back to England having suffered a full-scale nervous breakdown that requires some months of convalescence to recover from. The attempt to mock up an African jungle set in one of Bray’s tiny studios doesn’t exactly produce the most convincing results -- but Arthur Grant’s dazzlingly colourful photography (the film looks absolutely beautiful, especially now rendered in high definition) just about allows us to get away with interpreting it all as some sort of an hallucinogenic representation of Mayfield’s possible rape trauma – a gloss that’s backed up by the gorgeous billowing bright clouds of vivid scarlet smoke which consume the screen as the title credits run.

Some months later, having apparently fully recovered from her ordeal, Mayfield is offered the job of Headmistress of a local privately run school in an idyllic little picture postcard village called Heddaby -- a picturesque repository of perfectly pruned privet-hedges, with rose-lined 19th century chocolate box cottages nestled around the village green amid the rolling green splendour of sheep-dotted hills, deep in an unspoiled English Countryside. An ideal spot to escape the horrors of the past, where nothing remotely unpleasant could ever happen. The job has been offered by kindly C of E vicar Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) but Mayfield arrives in her modest mini to find the local church in ruins, and Bax is not even a real vicar! He merely adopts the dog collar and persona of a man of the church in order to make up for his failure to fulfil a past ambition to be ordained into the institution, surrounding himself with churchy iconography, art and paraphernalia as recompense, and blasting out organ music on a tape reel from his comfortable mansion home. Bax is married to celebrity author, academic and popular journalist Stephanie Bax (a film-saving turn by Kay Walsh): a fiercely charismatic figure who, it turns out, is something of a role model for Mayfield, who has been reading her popular works and articles on anthropology and other related subjects in the Sunday supplements for some years. As Mayfield settles into her prominent and respected position in the village community, headmistress and teacher to the children of this peaceful place in which everyone has an established niche in life and whose simple, cheerful population (which includes the likes of the young Michele Dotrice) seem ever friendly and welcoming, she and Stephanie become confidants and friends -- even if it still seems odd that there is no authentic church for the district… only Alan Bax posturing in a vicar role that’s merely tolerated by the community.

When Mayfield starts to notice that one particularly academically gifted boy in her class -- Ronnie Dowsett (played by former child star of “the Innocents” and “Village of the Damned” Martin Stephens), whom she’s been personally tutoring with hopes of landing him a scholarship in a prestigious private school -- is unfairly reviled by the other adults of the community and is being ostracised by them simply because of his budding friendship with an enigmatic fourteen-year-old classmate of his  called Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), her initial discomfort turns to real concern after she discovers a deliberately misspelt note from the boy accusing the girl’s Granny of treating Linda ‘something cruel’; and when the girl misses a day of school, Ronnie tells her that Granny Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) punished her for continuing to see him by forcing her arm into the washing mangle! Old Granny Rigg turns out to be the local healer and ‘wise woman’, well-versed in ‘the old ways’, but when Ronnie is subsequently taken mysteriously ill and falls into a medically unfathomable coma, Mayfield begins to suspect that witchcraft is being practised and endorsed by the villagers -- led by Granny Rigg herself -- after a headless toy doll, bought earlier by Ronnie as a present for Linda, is discovered by one of her other pupils in the Fork of a tree ... with pins sticking out of it.

Fontaine, middle-aged here but strangely attractive still despite her blonde, Margaret Thatcher-like helmet of lacquered hair, paints a convincing portrait of the smilingly brittle Gwen Mayfield, initially attracted to the comforting spiritual certainties seemingly being offered to her by the placid and -- as it turns out -- ineffectual Alan Bax, through her becoming an upstanding paragon of this charmingly traditional rural community, but then becoming ever more drawn to his indomitable wife Stephanie instead, who offers to collaborate with Gwen on co-authoring an article about local folklore and the history of witchcraft (her response to Gwen’s concerns about what’s been going on with the Dowsett boy), in one stroke deftly drawing her concerns away from the actual realities of what’s been happened in the village and into a purely academic conundrum. The schoolmistress is clearly flattered and excited by this unexpected intellectual attention. It’s not fleshed out in the script but her obvious adoration of Stephanie, and her evident excitement at the prospect of establishing an independent academic career along similar lines, hints at Gwen’s suppressed ambitions and thwarted independence being exploited by the erudite and persuasive Stephanie in what amount to a lesbian seduction technique. Stephanie Bax offers Gwen a psychological interpretation of witchcraft’s attractions to female practitioners that has particular resonance given the role Gwen is being groomed to play in subsequent events (‘it’s a sex thing deep down, of course. Mostly women go in for it … older women.’) but it’s telegraphed a mile off, of course, that it’s actually Bax and not Old Granny Rigg whose been the female mastermind of the local coven all along  – an outsider academic who’s come in and exploited the traditional pagan beliefs of the local community in order to set herself up as its high priestess.

Her actual aims turn out to be suitably grotesque, and inspired by the wish to follow some bizarre procedures for conjuring the Devil that have been laid down in a 14th century vellum-covered tome of witchcraft. Stephanie Bax is plotting to gain eternal life and beauty by sacrificing a virgin girl to the Devil and stealing her skin: Linda Rigg has been approved as the chosen one – hence the community’s disquiet at the potential for a ‘relationship’ that had been developing between her and Ronnie. Although there are some silly bits along the way (Gwen being trampled by a herd of runaway sheep while investigating the mysterious death of Ronnie’s dad [John Collin] after he tells her he plans to confront Granny Rigg over her role in Ronnie’s illness), the middle section of the film builds up the paranoia nicely, with Fountaine excelling as a bundle of neurotic tics who’s gradually driven to the edge of madness by the conspiring locals and their cruel attempts to unhinge her by planting talismanic references to her unfortunate experiences in Africa by her bedside; references which culminate in her experiencing another breakdown and spending the next year doped up and trapped inside a sinister rest home full of strange, elderly codgers. Here she suspects that Leonard Rossiter’s smarmy Dr Wallis is in on the occultists’ conspiracy against her and sets out to escape this purgatory of medical reasonableness, returning to Heddady, whereupon Stephanie admits all and reveals that she first brought Gwen to the village to become her eventual successor (‘I needed someone as intelligent and as fastidious as me!’) to take over the running of the coven after her own Satanic ascent.

It seems somewhat laughable that this ‘intelligent’ calculating woman would expect Gwen to be converted all of a sudden to her way of thinking, and cheerfully cavort about in thin robes with the others as the innocent Linda is sacrificed in the ruins of the pentagram-desecrated village church (the site of the coven’s secret sabot meetings) when the entire community gathers there at the end of the film for a bout of hysterical satanic-lite, bongo beating frolicking -- but it’s not as laughable as the subsequent depiction of the witches’ sabot itself:  Cyril Frankel’s direction is superlative when setting up a false sense of security during the first stages of the film, with gorgeous pastoral depictions of bucolic little England rendered via the almost ubiquitous village location of Hambleden – the go-to Buckinghamshire location for representing that idealised view of British life so familiar from countless episodes of “The Avengers” and many ITC action adventure serials in the ‘70s. He also manages the rest home sequences (shot in the reception area at Bray Studios itself) extremely well, building a sense of Gwen’s mounting paranoia with slanted camera angles and the use of wide-angle lenses to illustrate her drowsy perspective on her odd cohabites. When the climactic orgy/ritual scenes are reached, though, things go horribly awry in all areas: Bernard Robertson’s and Don Mingaye’s church ruin set looks achingly artificial, and although there are several eerie touches (a writhing bundle pictured on top of the pentagram that looks like a small baby in a sack; and the leering Stephanie, dressed in medieval-looking horned, candle-topped helmet, chanting: ‘give me a skin for dancing in!’ as she prepares to sacrifice the delirious spread-eagled Linda, with her cavorting followers apparently consuming excrement!) the satanic rites themselves are staged in an ill-conceived, stylised fashion that sees the village folk suddenly behaving like a beatnik dance troupe collective that’s been rehearsing an experimental performance art piece for the last week. Everyone keeps their clothes resolutely on throughout the so-called ‘orgy’ and because the film was never willing to be explicit about the potential sexual side of things underlying the relationship between Gwen and Stephanie, we never for a minute believe the gentle schoolmistress would ever be remotely tempted to go along with the evil plan she’s been groomed for, which makes Stephanie seem ridiculous for not seeing that fact and then leaving herself open to the ludicrous denouement she’s subjected to here. The utterly fairy-tale-like cheeriness of the ending, with order and goodness completely restored without there being even a vestige of ambiguity remaining, just shows how far things would change a few short years later, when “Rosemary’s Baby” and then “The Wicker Man” would take a radically different approach to their stories, each of which bears some uncanny similarities to events depicted in this film.

“The Witches”, complete with the BBFC’s X certificate at the start, looks fantastic in this restored double play edition featuring Blu-ray and DVD copies of the film. The new digital transfer displays rich detail in the countryside location scenery especially, and only a few process shots remain murky and grainy -- otherwise this is a pristine, sharp and extremely colourful and vibrant print. The mono sound is also very strong, rendering Richard Rodney Bennett’s score without distortion. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are included but the only extra on the disc does not relate directly to this particular film at all -- although it’s still a good one: “Hammer Glamour” is another Flashpoint Media production produced by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and narrated by Damien Thomas, which looks at the rise of the Hammer starlet, covering all of Hammer’s greatest leading ladies but with particular emphasis on key individuals who have been especially interviewed for the 42 minute documentary -- such as Vera Day (star of “Quatermass II” and widely regarded as the first female face of Hammer), Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke and Madeline Smith (who are all interviewed together) as well as Jenny Hanley. The doc’s key insight, not original but made impossible to ignore here, is the undercurrent of sexual exploitation that young actresses often felt they had to accept as a price they must pay for escaping otherwise humdrum workaday lives with little prospects.

Vera Day encapsulates the route from photographic model to actress which defined the career trajectories of most young women in the industry who came from humble non-theatrical backgrounds back then. But as the demand for an increasing display of on-screen sexuality became more prominent in the late-sixties and early-seventies, actresses such as Madeline Smith, Jenny Hanley and Valerie Leon, who were actually quite prim and proper in real life and certainly didn’t revel in their newfound status as sex symbols, found the whole process extremely unpalatable. Jenny Hanley relates some of the tricks of the trade directors would use to try and get pretty starlets out of their bras and knickers for risqué scenes (the independent producer-director Pete Walker was one prominent offender according to Hanley) while the slightly more sexually adventurous Martine Beswicke (who describes her film persona back then as a ‘Bitch Kitty’) talks about some of her more questionable roles, such as Hammer’s camp fest “Prehistoric Women” and the failed opportunity she felt “Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde” represented for tackling the complexities of gender identity. Some of the anecdotes here are strangely touching (Valerie Leon, one of Hammer’s most knock-dead gorgeous starlets, remembering being so chronically shy during the making of “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” that she’d bring sandwiches to the set to eat in her dressing room just so that she wouldn’t have to attempt to socialise with the rest of the cast and crew during breaks), others are somewhat troubling in their implications (Madeline Smith’s confession that during a period when she was regularly being encouraged to take her top off for lesbian scenes with Ingrid Pitt, she didn’t even know what an orgasm was). Smith has a particularly tart way of summing up the types of roles she was expected to play for Hammer (I was always the victim … the one things were being done to, who always seemed to be unaware that she had her tits hanging out at the time.’) but she recalls her role in “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” as providing her with the best part she ever had, which didn’t involve her having to cavort around in low-cut tops for once. This documentary is a mine of treasurable anecdotes from performers who remember their time in the film industry with both affection and, in some cases, with some degree of reservation as well. It’s nicely put together with clips and photographs, to provide a great overview of Hammer’s story from the perspective of the changing role glamour played in the development of the company's history. It’s an excellent addition to this disc, which features a superb edition of what is undoubtedly one of Hammer’s second division titles, but which, nevertheless, contains a lot to interest any fan of Britain’s foremost horror factory.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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