Thursday, 24 October 2013

MOVIE: The Witches (1966)

After an uncomfortable encounter in Africa with the occult, an English schoolteacher takes up a post in a quiet country village, only to find that the locals may be practicing black magic as well...

Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) takes up her new position, and starts to become aware that all is not as it seems. One of the girls in the class seems to have an overbearing grandmother, who has taken a great disdain to her growing relationship with a boy in the same class So has most of the village, come to that.

The locals are outwardly friendly, but there is something not quite right. Local journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), seems to be a voice of reason in the cast of local eccentrics, but even that may be a mask. Meanwhile, Stephanie's brother Alan (Alec MacCowan) incongruously harbours a desire to be a priest... 

A somewhat curious entry in Hammer's catalogue. Joan Fontaine had bought the rights to the novel The Devil's Own in 1962. Written by Norah Lofts (better known for her historical novels), it had been published under the pseudonym of Peter Curtis, to differentiate it from her usual work. Fontaine had hoped it would be the ideal project to re-launch her film career, and following an adaptation by Nigel Kneale it went into production at Hammer's Bray Studios.

Director Cyril Frankel, better known for his work on several ITC series of the period, does a good job for the most part (note that I say most part), creating an unsettling atmosphere as strange things start to occur in the community and the teacher starts to think that either something sinister is afoot, or she is losing her mind. So far, so good

But, oh dear. The last ten minutes... This is one of the few Hammer films to have a credit for choreography, and that's exactly the problem with the climax. It looks far too choreographed, like a demented West Side Story. It unfortunately makes a mockery of what has come before (the director blamed the screenwriter, and vice versa.), but fortunately it's not enough to spoil the film completely. At its best, The Witches interestingly presages the atmosphere of Brit-classics The Prisoner and The Wicker Man in the village scenes and it has some fine set pieces. If the film is ultimately a failure, it is in comparison with Hammer's usual standards. Sadly, the disappointing box office results would fail to meet Fontaine's hopes that it would reboot her cinema career.

Blu-Ray Notes: It's another nice transfer in StudioCanal's series of archive Hammer releases. The lack of extras, however, is telling of its status in their filmography. The Blu-ray has been advertised on some sites as containing a commentary, but this was nowhere to be seen on the copy I rented. There is, however a very enjoyable documentary called Hammer Glamour, featuring the ladies who graced the studio's output. With contributions from Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, Madeleine Smith, Jenny Hanley and Vera Day (but sadly not Veronica Carlson), it's an enjoyable and interesting programme, which would be the ideal basis for a more thorough feature-length documentary on its subject. It certainly helps make this release a more desirable purchase.


UK 1966 -Hammer/ABPC

aka: The Devil's Own

91 Minutes

Certificate - X (UK, original release), 12 (UK, Blu-Ray)

Blu-Ray/DVD: StudioCanal (UK)

Original Theatrical Trailer

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