Friday, September 27, 2013

The Witches (1966) - FilmReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

"Throw in a satanic ritual and you almost have just the right ingredients to keep this Hammer film from falling foul of its own black magic."

There is much to thank Hammer Films for. Not only has the studio enriched British cinema but its influence continues to cast a spell to this present day. Growing up in England, I first discovered Hammer while watching one of the Dracula films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I was mesmerized by powerful performances, vivid texture and haunting colour. Close to where I lived there had been a history of death, leprosy, plague, civil war and witchcraft, so I was in good company with local ghosts of the past, inspiring a fascination with the supernatural. Movies satisfied my hunger.

Though three decades old (at that time), the production of "Dracula" felt fresh and alive with purpose. I have been a fan ever since. Over the years I have enjoyed various titles, though I must admit I am far from seeing them all. It is hard to believe that this production company was founded in 1934 by William Hinds. Then known as Hammer Productions Ltd., Hammer's first production was "The Public Life Of Henry The Ninth", that very same year. And though many associate Hammer with horror, it is interesting to know that the studio has produced movies for various genres, including comedy. For some years after its final steps into mystery and suspense, there was a hiatus. However, a return with vampire horror "Let Me In" (2010), a remake of 2008 Swedish feature "Let the Right One In", spoke volumes: Hammer Films was back with a vengeance...

In 1966 director Cyril Frankel gave us "The Witches", a horror featuring what was to be actress Joan Fontaine's last big screen role. Restored and beautifully presented, StudioCanal has chosen wisely with its blu-ray and DVD combos, and this is no exception! Telling the story of Miss Gwen Mayfield's arrival in the quiet English village of Walwyk as new head teacher at the local school, "The Witches" for the most part works well as a British thriller, featuring an excellent cast. The sense of paranoia that permeates through the plot feels as stalking as the black cat (owned by the mysterious Granny Rigg) that creepily happens to keep a rather close eye on Gwen.

Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield could not have been better cast, her performance is grounded as a woman encountering a mystery who steadily unearths a devilish plot involving witchcraft. Those familiar with British sitcoms might just recognise the faces of Rudolph Walker ("Love Thy Neighbour", "Eastenders"), Leonard Rossiter ("Rising Damp"), and a young Michele Dotrice ("Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em"). No stranger to Hammer Films, actor Duncan Lamont also plays the role of butcher Bob Curd; I remember Lamont mostly for his performance in the 1974 Doctor Who serial "Death to the Daleks". Kay Walsh, too, is cast as Stephanie Bax, a very rich and influential lady; Walsh can be seen as Nancy in David Lean's 1948 masterpiece telling of "Oliver Twist", adapted from author Charles Dickens' classic tale.

"The Witches" is a feature that feels Hitchcock-esque in style and yet, fails to deliver an ending that compliments the film as a whole. There is less horror than you would expect, although as a thriller it is less needed. The mystery surrounding schoolgirl Linda Rigg (portrayed by Ingrid Brett, also known as Ingrid Boulting) remains the focus of the plot, as locals are determined to keep her away from a young village boy, who unexpectedly falls into a coma. Later, a missing doll is found - headless - and there is a death. Throw in a satanic ritual and you almost have just the right ingredients to keep this Hammer film from falling foul of its own black magic. Sadly, the ritual itself does not work so well, those actors involved in the ceremony looking more like locals from a dancing school with a choreography that is simply far too long and strange to be of any value.

Adapted from a 1960 novel "The Devil's Own" by Norah Lofts (published under the pseudonym Peter Curtis), the climax could have been better handled by Frankel and writer Nigel Kneale, though it has been purported that the latter (known for other hits including "Quatermass and the Pit") was unhappy with the final result, having included more humour in his script than was finally shown. Personally I am glad that "The Witches" remained serious, even if it delivered a far from satisfactory conclusion. On the balance, this is one film that was enjoyable, beautifully shot and, looking back, a reflection of quintessential England in a bygone era. Just one question, why is there a doll of singer/songwriter Paul McCartney in the movie poster pierced by pins? Perhaps the witch's power reaches beyond Walwyk?

In addition to the film, on the Blu-ray you will find a new documentary "Hammer Glamour", which takes a look at the Hammer girls through the years. Mixed in with classic footage, there are interviews with glamour girls Caroline Munro, Madeline Smith, Jenny Hanley, Valerie Leon, and Martine Beswick. It is a delight to hear their opinions of the show, and memories of working with other cast. One complaint, especially from Hanley, was the need for nudity in the Hammer movies - revealing too much flesh is something that actress Smith certainly seems to now regret (she starred in 1970's "The Vampire Lovers", opposite Ingrid Pitt), stating that she was young and naive in those early days of her career. In all, a rather intriguing forty-two minutes spent. And Munro looks as good as ever...

Purchase The Witches from the Store:
Blu-ray + DVD combo - Feature running time: 90 minutes

Or perhaps purchase the paperback - Publisher: Hammer