Retro-review: New on Blu-Ray/DVD from The Scream Factory!

THE WITCHES (1966)

aka THE DEVIL’S OWN
Directed by Cyril Frankel
Written by Nigel Kneale (screenplay), Norah Lofts as Peter Curtis (novel)
Starring Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting, John Collin, Michele Dotrice, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Duncan Lamont, Leonard Rossiter, Martin Stephens, Carmel McSharry, Viola Keats, Shelagh Fraser, Bryan Marshall

The use of witchcraft to signify feelings of paranoia and being an outsider is not something new in horror. The feeling of not fitting in is as primal as fear itself, because being alone means being vulnerable and being vulnerable is not something one wants to feel in a horror film. Though the eras seem to be distant from one another, ROSEMARY’S BABY and Hammer’s THE WITCHES share these very feelings with a seemingly innocent woman trapped in a world that seems to be immersed in witchcraft with no exit in sight.

Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a young missionary who suffered from a nervous breakdown while in Africa when she ran afoul of some witch doctors in the area. Attempting to piece her life together, she settles in an English township as a school teacher, but soon suspects that the dark arts has followed her. The town seems to have some secrets of its own revolving around a missing girl and a dark sacrifice.

THE WITCHES is one of the latter Hammer horrors, one not so reliant on gothic castles, vast landscapes, and vampirism. Instead it tries to play into the modern-day utilizing cars and some modern technology. Still, an ever-present theme throughout is the battle between old world tradition and modern ways of thinking. Much like Gwen’s trip to Africa, intent on bringing Catholicism to the “savages” and being scared out of the country because of it, Gwen is again an outsider in this village and is met with much suspicion. Director Cyril Frankel contrasts the wholesome aspects of Fontaine with the suspicious glances and whisperings of the villagers very well, immediately letting the reader know that something is off. This ever-increasing wave of paranoia rises pretty high, culminating with Gwen investigating the whereabouts of one of her missing students and a rather calamitous scene where she is almost trampled by a herd of sheep along a muddy riverbed. Up until this point, the subtle but effective rise in tension is done really well.

But in the third act of this film, the momentum skids to a halt as Gwen is whisked away from the village to a hospital. This brief repose from the danger of the village undercuts what up to that point was a damn fine thriller of being an outsider in a close-knit community. I’m not sure why the filmmakers decided to do this, as it really does derail the film and never it never really gets its footing back. The end, as with many horror films of its era, cuts off abruptly and left me feeling as if this were a really great movie if not for a few wrong writing decisions.

Still, there are some harrowing scenes towards the beginning, though they may seem politically incorrect in this day and age, centering on the otherness of the witch doctors of the tribe and Fontaine’s reaction to it. The final act must have been shocking for the era it was birthed in and it still sort of resonates, if not for the bizarre detour this one takes halfway through. The acting is top notch and the direction does evoke a sense of paranoia and unease. THE WITCHES turns out to be a film, just shy of hitting the intended mark, but nevertheless effective for much of its runtime.