by Steve Habrat
With Hammer Films having their gothic claws around ghouls like vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and psycho killers, it makes perfect sense that they’d also haunt the witch subgenre. In 1966, Hammer released director Cyril Frankel’s The Witches, a slow-burn effort that is based on the novel The Devil’s Own by Norah Lofts. Heavily lacking their trademark gothic atmosphere, The Witches doesn’t particularly feel like a Hammer horror film. If the credits didn’t tell you it was one of their releases, you’d have absolutely no idea they were even involved with it. With Hammer leaning so heavily on the atmosphere of their films, it is nice to find an effort that focused more on story rather than spooky graveyards and creaky old castles to really send a shiver. While the story driven approach is fine enough, The Witches suffers from a bit too much down time, resulting in a film that often times bores the viewer more than it entertains them. Despite the trudging pace and the laughable climax, the film does feature a strong performance from actress Joan Fontaine, who was the one who convinced Hammer to make the film in the first place.
The Witches introduces us to Gwen Mayfield (played by Joan Fontaine), a missionary working in Africa who has a traumatic encounter with a witch doctor. Three years after the traumatic experience, Gwen takes a job as a schoolteacher in the small English town of Heddaby. Gwen arrives in the tranquil village and slowly gets to know the locals, who all appear to be friendly enough. Life seems to be going great for Gwen until she notices a romance budding between two of her students, Ronnie (played by Martin Stephens) and Linda (played by Ingrid Boulting). The romance seems harmless enough until one day Ronnie reports that he saw Linda’s guardian, Granny Rigg (played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies), brutally punishing her. Gwen investigates the report but Linda and Granny dismiss the incident. As the days pass, Gwen begins to notice that the locals seem to treat Linda strangely, but things really get suspicious when Gwen finds a headless voodoo doll stuck in a tree and Ronnie mysteriously falls into a coma. After Ronnie’s father turns up dead and she has another voodoo-like encounter, Gwen is convinced that the seemingly cheery town is hiding something. To make things worse, she begins to suspect that there may be a sinister side to her wealthy employers, Alan (played by Alec McCowen) and Stephanie (played by Kay Walsh) Bax.
The Witches opens on a positive note, with an uneasy scare that leaves you wanting to see just what comes next. As voodoo drums bang on the soundtrack, Gwen and two petrified men quickly try to close up shop before a witch doctor and his followers can come bursting through the door to cast his awful spells. It’s intense enough and it leads you to believe that Frankel will be able to handle to the really creepy stuff with equal amounts of gusto. This sequence is grossly misleading. The Witches then switches over to mystery and suspicion as Gwen settles into her scenic new home. The scary stuff starts out small, with a strange occurrence here and there. There is Ronnie’s chilling story about Granny Rigg putting Linda’s hand in a clothes ringer and there is Granny Rigg encouraging a cat to follow Gwen home, all little things that suggest that there might be a sinister side to this seemingly happy community. Where Frankel really starts to botch it is when the bigger scares start to emerge. In one of the sillier moments, he zooms his camera in repeatedly on Gwen’s terrified expression, all while exaggerated music screams at us to react. This jolt doesn’t work, and it makes you wish that he had handled it with the same sort of casual style that he handled the first half.
Where The Witches really falls apart is during the ludicrous climax that has the villagers of Heddaby performing an unintentionally hilarious ritual that finds Stephanie, the head witch, hoping to literally get inside Linda’s skin. The climax finds Frankel working in the trademark gothic atmosphere we have all come to expect from Hammer, as the ritual takes place in a muddy tomb nestled in an overgrown graveyard. Despite the atmosphere, it can’t cover for the bizarre dance routines, the overacting, the fully clothed orgy that appears to take place, or the fact that the ritual can be stopped in the most nonsensical way possible. It’s not frightening by any stretch of the imagination and we certainly don’t fear for any of our protagonists. There is also the fact that it seems to be completely out of place when joined to the rest of the film, which worked hard to establish a subtler approach to the material. Had Frankel decided not to have the villagers hop around and rub up against each other like dogs, the ritual may have taken on a spookier vibe. He even could have cut a few of the lights he has shining down on the action to give the events taking place a bit of an ominous vibe. Sadly, he doesn’t and as a result he destroys his entire picture.
While the climax may shatter the entire film, the actors still manage to give some respectable performances before the project implodes on itself. Fonataine is strong and charismatic as Gwen, the blonde-haired detective of our witchy story. You will genuinely root for her to get to the bottom of all the suspicious events that are taking place within the community. You will also catch yourself fearing for her sanity when familiar voodoo dolls start popping up around her bedroom. Kay Walsh flaunts a sinister side as Stephanie, a seemingly skeptical individual who really is the head witch. It’s a shame that the silliness of the climax does her character in the way that it does. Stephens does a fine job with his small role as Ronnie, Linda’s concerned suitor who unknowingly gets in the way of evil, and Boulting oozes mystery as the seemingly sheltered Linda. Overall, while The Witches is beautifully shot and eerily composed early on, Frankel stumbles over the later scares and a climax that wouldn’t terrify a five-year-old. It’s a low point for Hammer, and it leaves you wishing that they had stuck to what they did best—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and psycho killers.
The Witches is available on DVD.