Blu-ray Review: The Witches (1966)

The Witches BR CoverDistributor: StudioCanal

BBFC Classification: 12

Director: Cyril Frankel

Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Michele Dotrice, Leonard Rossiter, Ann Bell

Based on the novel The Devil’s Own by Peter Curtis, The Witches is one of the less spoken about films from the mid-period of Hammer’s first run of horror films, released amidst a flurry of Dracula and Frankenstein sequels, cave girl pictures and more popular standalone titles like The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile.

After an incident with a witchdoctor whilst teaching in Africa, Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine – Ivanhoe) has a breakdown and returns to England to take up a position teaching in a rural village school. But Gwen soon discovers that her run-in with the occult in Africa was just the beginning of her troubles and that the odd behaviour she begins to encounter can be put down to more than just village life, like why her boss pretends to be a vicar when the church is decrepit and run down, and why there seems to be a sudden spate of strange accidents and deaths.

The most obvious plus-point in The Witches is the central performance from Joan Fontaine, who anchors the film and gives it a gravitas in a way that not many leading ladies of the time could pull off without going down the proto-‘scream queen’ route. It’s a more than solid performance and Fontaine manages to earn our sympathies without too much effort but without any of the Hammer regulars in the cast and only Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp) popping up as a slightly shifty doctor and a very young Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em) being the only other actors of note in the film, it does feel a little empty and in need of some familiar faces to hold our interest as the story unfolds at a very deliberate pace.

Despite the television drama feel and relatively wishy-washy casting The Witches does have the sinister undercurrent that is vital in films revolving around a village with a secret, but unlike, say, The Wicker Man it doesn’t feel developed enough to induce any terror. It does serve as a sort-of forerunner to Rosemary’s Baby or Hammer’s own The Devil Rides Out but even for 1966 it feels outdated by at least 15 years, which may go some way to explaining the lukewarm reaction the film received upon its initial release. Looking at it now, the restoration job has certainly helped in sharpening up the picture and adding some richness to the colour scheme but the theatrical nature of the performances and Joan Fontaine’s overall look just seem too old fashioned when you consider that Night of the Living Dead was only two years away and even more so when you compare it to the similarly-themed and far superior City of the Dead, which came out six years earlier.

Also included on the disc is Hammer Glamour, a 42-minute documentary celebrating the bevy of beauties that have starred in various Hammer releases, including new interviews with, amongst others, Caroline Munro (Dracula A.D. 1972), Valerie Leon (Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb) and Martine Beswick (Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde). It’s a fun little extra and, obviously, there are some gorgeous stills shown but we also learn the even-more-obvious fact that Christopher Lee takes his work very seriously, even when faced with a toy bat on a wire.

An oddity in Hammer’s back catalogue, The Witches is best approached with caution if you’re expecting the sweeping gothic scenery, swashbuckling heroics or heaving bosoms that Hammer was known for because none of those are there. It is bookended with an exciting opening and a bonkers ending that is both weird and hilarious, but what happens in between is a little too quaint in style to sit comfortably with Hammer’s other output of the period.

The Witches

Special Features: Hammer Glamour documentary.

UK Release Date: 21st October 2013

Hammer Films – Website

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