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Reader’s Choice Halloween Review: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Halloween III-Season of the Witch #1

by Steve Habrat

After striking box office gold with 1978’s slasher classic Halloween and finding more success with 1981’s follow-up, Halloween II, John Carpenter and Debra Hill thought there was potential to turn the Halloween series into an anthology. Acting as producers, Carpenter and Hill recruited Tommy Lee Wallace and Nigel Kneale to come up with a screenplay that didn’t contain Michael Myers or Laurie Strode. Leaning more towards science fiction than straight up horror, the result was 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an imaginative but ultimately middling exercise in terror. Directed by Wallace, Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s biggest mistake was cutting the popular Michael Myers character out of the action and replacing it with a mad toymaker who uses Halloween masks to sacrifice children. Since it’s disappointing release, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has earned a cult following despite being considered the worst entry in the Halloween series by Halloween fans. Truth is, Halloween III has its heart in the right place, and the desire to break away from the stab-and-slash formula that the filmmakers applied the first time around is commendable, but the film seems slapped together and it’s poorly acted. To make matter worse, the film never even comes scaring the viewer the way the original Halloween did. Only once or twice does it actually get a little spooky, but the rest of the time it’s falling into unintentional comedy territory.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch begins with Harry Grimbridge (played by Al Berry) getting chased down by mysterious men is suits. He finds help from a kindly gas station attendant, who immediately takes him to the nearby hospital. As the doctors try to evaluate Harry’s condition, they discover that he is clutching a Halloween mask and that he keeps babbling about unnamed individuals who plan on killing everyone. The doctors leave Harry in a room to rest, but he is soon discovered by one of the suited men and brutally murdered. Just as the man is trying to escape, Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins) encounters the individual and chases him down. Before Dan can stop him, the man gets into a car and kills himself through self-immolation. A few days later, Dan meets Harry’s daughter, Ellie (played by Stacey Nelkin), who tells Dan of her father’s store, which sold popular masks made by Silver Shamrock. Sensing that something isn’t right with the Silver Shamrock company, Dan and Ellie head to the Silver Shamrock factory in Santa Mira. Upon their arrival, they notice that town seems almost abandoned and those who remain seem strangely cheerful. Making things even more suspicious, the entire town is filled with surveillance cameras. It doesn’t take Dan and Ellie long to learn of Conal Cochran (played by Dan O’Herlihy), the suspicious head of the Silver Shamrock Corporation. After touring the Silver Shamrock factory, Dan and Ellie grow convinced that something strange is going on with the Halloween masks, and that the company may be plotting something sinister on Halloween night.

Attempting to draw its scares from the witchy side of the Gaelic holiday Samhain, Halloween III takes its terror to epic levels that weren’t even dreamed about in Halloween and Halloween II. What made the first two Halloween films such a hit was the idea that the horror could be taking place just up the road or a street over. It was striking in suburbia—the heart of America where kids scamper happily to school and Dad goes to work from 9 to 5. To make it even spookier, it appeared to be the boogeyman and he was reluctant to stay dead. Halloween III captures none of this and instead opts for blunt force violence, synthesized jump scares, and clashing science fiction to give us a few sleepless nights. There are suited androids that leap out from the shadows and there are more than a few gruesome deaths, but the problem is that it seems to be completely misunderstanding what made the original film scary. The original film didn’t need to rely on jump scares or graphic gore—it was scary because it seemed completely plausible. Computer-chipped Halloween masks, irritating jingles, and Stonehenge just don’t make the spine tingle like a white-masked maniac appearing out of nowhere and stabbing a screaming teen to death.

Halloween III-Season of the Witch #2

With Wallace flubbing a good majority of the scares, it’s up to stars Tom Atkins and Dan O’Herlihy to do the heavy lifting in Halloween III. Genre star Atkins is his usual heroic self as Dan, a doctor with a broken marriage, a drinking problem, and thing for flirting with nearly every single woman he meets. Naturally, Atkins is likable and we do root for him to stop Cochran from carrying out his evil plot, but he never gives a performance that matches his work in 1980’s The Fog. O’Herlihy is easily the best here as Cochran, the demented toymaker who is all smiles and warm promises when he meets with his fans, but is sinister and scowling when he is challenged by anyone attempting to stand in his way. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Nelkin gives a flat and unexciting performance as Ellie, Grimbridge’s daughter who strikes up a steamy relationship with Dan as they investigate Silver Shamrock. Ralph Strait stops by as Buddy Kupfer, a cheesy, roly-poly salesman who has been pushing large amounts of Cochran’s Halloween masks. His character would honestly disappear from your memory if it weren’t for the scene in which his family is treated to a sneak peek of what Cochran is planning on doing Halloween night.

While there is quite a bit to frustrate the viewer in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, there are a few parts that horror fans just won’t be able to resist. Much like the original Halloween, Halloween III features a synthesizer score from Carpenter that will surely send a few shivers. Then there is the gore, which is sure to satisfy the gore hounds that have come to see arteries spurt in creative ways. One character has their head ripped off their body, another has their skull crushed, and there are also the scenes in which we get to see just what Cochran masks can do to those who wear them. While the explanations are a bit hazy, the masks appear to melt the heads of those who are wearing them. As if a mushy melon wasn’t enough, we then get to see slimy snakes and bugs crawling out of the melted mess. These little demonstrations are probably the most horrific aspect of Halloween III! Overall, while you can’t blame Carpenter and Hill for wanting to take their series in a new direction, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is still an uneven departure from the original formula. The script features numerous plot holes, it’s not very scary, and a majority of the performances will roll off your memory. However, Wallace is game to spring some nasty visuals and the chilling final note of the film is sure to get to you. Oh, and good luck getting that Silver Shamrock theme out of your head. In the end, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is like digging through your pillowcase after a long night of trick or treating. It’s a mixed bag.

Grade: C

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wicked Witches: Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria #1

by Steve Habrat

One of the most famous directors working within the horror genre is without question Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. Starting out as a film critic, Argento moved on to developing the story for Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West before finally settling behind the camera in 1970 to create his own “giallo” thrillers and horror films. It’s safe to say that he had quite the career before 1977. After delivering a handful of well-received and expertly crafted horror outings (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and 1975’s Deep Red), Argento released Suspiria, which has gone on to become the most popular film of his directorial career. Considered by many (including me) to be one of the scariest motion pictures of all time, Suspiria is best described as a glammed up horror film drenched in neon lighting and set to one of the most unforgettable scores in movie history. It’s extravagant beyond belief as it transports the viewer into a surreal funhouse of witches and demons waiting to cast their ghastly spells on anyone who stumbles upon their secrets. While spots of Suspiria are beginning to show their age, the film still stands as a terrifying work of genius, featuring a number of death scenes and demonic surprises that remain beautiful and brutal in all of their flamboyant fury.

Suspiria begins with American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) touching down in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. After arriving very late at night, Suzy is turned away from the school doors by a mysterious woman on the intercom. Before hopping back in her taxi, a young blonde girl bursts through the door, shouts a message to someone standing just inside the door, and then bolts off into the night. Perplexed, Suzy makes her way into town to check into a hotel for the night. The next day, Suzy arrives back at the school to meet with vice directress Madame Blanc (played by Joan Bennet) and head instructor Miss Tanner (played by Alida Valli). Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner take Suzy around to meet some of the students and figure out living arrangements. After several attempts to get Suzy to live at the school, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner agree to let Suzy live off campus with a student named Olga (played by Barbara Magnolfi). The next day, Suzy has a bizarre run-in with the school cook, who appears to cast a spell on Suzy that causes her to fall ill. After fainting the middle of her class, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner move Suzy’s belongings into the school and insist that she stay in a dormitory under their care. After several more strange occurrences, Suzy and her new friend, Sara (played by Stefania Casini), begin to suspect that the school may be a front for a coven of witches.

Argento opens Suspiria on an extremely intense note, with a surreal double murder at the hands of a hairy demon that always remains just off screen (a smart move on Argento’s part). After the demon brutally stabs one girl to death to the point where the audience catches a glimpse of her still-beating heart, she is then dropped through a stained-glass skylight and left to hang in the middle of the grand lobby. Her horrified friend, who has been frantically banging on doors in an attempt to get her seemingly non-existent neighbors to help, happens to be underneath the skylight when the shards of glass plunge to the ground, leaving her a sliced up mess. We’ve stepped into a nightmare world complimented by demonic “la-la-la’s,” chiming lullaby bells, and hair-raising shrieks of  “WITCH” by the progressive Italian rock group Goblin. The architecture and the lighting schemes are all embellished, with harsh splashes of red and blue illuminating the screen like Satan’s lava lamp. It’s a surprisingly pretty smear of color and horror that warns us that we have left the comforts of the real world far, far behind. Despite being in the middle of a massive apartment complex, there is no one around to save these girls from this rampaging force signified by Goblin’s chilling electronic score. You’d think that all this commotion would draw the attention of someone, but we’re on our own in this glowing witchcraft realm. This is only the beginning, as Argento plans to keep us feeling hopeless for the entire duration of the film.

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Argento guides the dreamlike horror from the baroque apartment complex to the glittery walls the ballet dance school. With its exterior painted up in bright red and decorated with gold gargoyles, the school possesses a menacing look in broad daylight—it’s a satanic castle dripping with blood and crawling with demons. Inside, the walls are either glittery blues or glowing reds, with slanting windows, a gold staircase railing that seems to be melting on the heads of our characters, and some of the ugliest wall art you may ever see. It’s a world where maggots suddenly rain from the ceiling, disembodied raspy breathing can be heard behind a curtain, and random rooms packed with razor wire patiently wait to claim their next victim. You have to marvel at the amazing set design, even if it is an interior decorators worst nightmare. The surreal supernatural atmosphere also roars to life within these halls, the camera taking the POV of a creeping force that is brought to life through Goblin’s alien score. When an unseen tormentor with a straight razor terrorizes one character through the school halls, no student dares peak their head out of their dormitory to see if their help is needed. Is the whole school in on this? Is this attack a dream? Argento gives no clear explanation other than there are forces beyond our understanding at work here and sudden death lurks just around the glowing red corner. And somehow, that makes the events all the scarier.

With the set design and vivid lighting schemes stealing most of the thunder, you almost have to see Suspiria twice to pay attention to the near perfect performances. Jessica Harper is delicate and subtle as our curious heroine who notices that something is amiss about her new school. She wanders cautiously through the halls and dodges the wandering teachers keeping an eye out for anyone who dares snoop around. Bennet puts on a caring face as Madame Blanc, the vice headmistress who seems to overflow with motherly concern for her students. Alida Valli wears a frozen forced grin as the stern instructor Miss Tanner, a woman who undoubtedly has a nasty side just waiting to emerge at the right time. Stefania Casini is full of theories and suspicion about the rumored directress that is supposedly away from the school. Flavio Bucci turns in a sympathetic performance as Daniel, the blind pianist who is booted from the school after his seeing-eye dog is accused of attacking Madame Blanc’s young nephew. Well-known genre star Udo Kier also turns up in a small role as Dr. Frank Mandel, who provides Suzy with a bit of unnerving background knowledge about her new school.

With such a stunning opening that packs blood-curdling gore and scares, you’d think that Argento wouldn’t be able to top his magnificent commencement, but he does every single step of the way. Halfway through the film, you will gasp in horror as one character is attacked in a wide-open square, and the climax of the film will have you watching through your fingers as Suzy pushes deep into the bowels of the school to confront a coven of witches. With the suspense turned up as high as it will go, Argento then springs not one, but two monsters on us that will certainly have your knees knocking together. As far as flaws go, the most glaring would have to be the dubbing that was added in post-production. There is one moment near the end where the dialogue shoots high for evil, but it doesn’t have the impact that it should. Overall, other than the spotty dubbing in a few places, Suspiria is a shining example of demonic horror done by a man who knows how to simultaneously make you cringe in pain and shriek in horror. The Goblin score sticks in your brain like a splinter and you won’t be able to peel your eyes off the flowing string of shimmering images that are presented to you. Suspiria casts a wicked spell that will haunt you for weeks.

Grade: A+

Suspiria is available on DVD.

Wicked Witches: The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man #1

by Steve Habrat

As horror moved into the 1970s, the genre was becoming extremely savage, bloodthirsty, and unforgiving. Exploitation horror was gaining momentum and even the arty offerings didn’t hesitate to get right in your face with bludgeoning images of sex and violence. Subtlety was slowly getting buried six feet under, but one British horror film chose to take a different approach to creeping you out big time. That film would be director Robin Hardy’s 1973 Pagan musical-horror film The Wicker Man, an unsettling look at religion that slowly works up to a fiery climax that has become one of the most well known finishes in movie history. At first glance, most probably wouldn’t be quick to label The Wicker Man a horror film. It’s got a folky atmosphere with a number of strumming musical breaks, several of which feature free-spirited ladies dancing around in the nude. Once called “the Citizen Kane of horror films” by the film magazine Cinefantastique, The Wicker Man slowly grows on the viewer before fully revealing an ugly side. Undoubtedly, it will take the viewer a moment to adjust to it, especially when a pub breaks out into song in the first ten minutes and Hardy presents a slow-motion sex scene. But as Hardy lures us deeper into this island and allows us to mingle with the inhabitants, you’ll start to feel a churning sense of dread as Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle seals Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie’s fate.

The Wicker Man begins with devout Christian Sgt. Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) arriving at Summerisle Island, where he is sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. As he opens his investigation, the straight-laced Neil meets with locals who claim never to have heard of Rowan. As Neil explores the island, he witnesses several couples having sex in the open air of a park, observes the island’s doctor attempting to rid a young girl of a sore throat by putting a frog in the girl’s mouth, wards off the seduction of the innkeepers beautiful daughter, Willow (played by Britt Ekland), and bursts in on a graphic school lesson. To Neil’s horror, he is wandering around on an island full of Pagans. After finding Rowan’s grave and discovering that buried in her place is a hare, Neil meets with island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee), who explains the history of the island, which is known for its fruits and vegetables. Enraged by his meeting with Lord Summerisle, Neil launches his own investigation of the island’s May Day festivals and in the process, he makes a shocking discovering that puts him in mortal danger.

What makes The Wicker Man such an uneasy experience is the exploration of religious extremity. We are asked to identify with a devout Christian, a virgin who trembles at the very idea of polytheism worship and open sexuality. While in front of the chuckling islanders, Neil wears an authoritative mask and a rigid stance, although it is easy to see that he is repulsed by what those around him claim to believe. Behind closed doors, he kneels beside his bed and prays furiously to his one true God. On the other side of he room lays the nude Willow, knocking on the wall and singing a hypnotic folk song in the hopes of luring the uptight Neil into her bed. She dances and sways around her room, seeming to cast a spell through her motions as Neil fights furiously to repel her advances. He sweats and stumbles, clinging to the wall as if an unseen hands were trying to drag him from the room. Early on, Hardy lets us know that Neil suffers from his religious beliefs, but he slowly allows us to glimpse the insanity of the islanders as they march in their animal masks and unveil their true intentions with our God-fearing protagonist. It’s horrifying what they will do for a successful crop season, a stomach-churning plot that reeks of lunacy and blind devotion. Even scarier is the way they smile proudly as they look upon their work, singing proudly and loudly up to their glowing sun god.

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The two men caught in the center of this religious exploration are Christopher Lee’s shock-haired Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie, both who give drastically different but equally exquisite performances. Woodward is sensational as a man who just can’t open his mind up to the possibility that others do not believe what he believes. He is constantly irritated by the practices of the islanders and he even attempts to intervene when he catches an earful of what is being taught to the children in school. In a sense, we do feel bad for him when we see him struggle to stay pure, but it’s tough when he is basically a victim of his own faith and repression. However uptight he may be, you can’t help but feel for him when he is sacrificed at the hands of madness during the climax. On the other side of the spectrum is Lee’s Lord Summerisle, the island’s unhinged leader that smiles sarcastically as Neil accuses him of sacrificing the girl he is there to find in a Pagan ritual. By the end of the film, as the island wind ruffles up his hair and he explains that they have lured Neil into a trap, you’ll truly be convinced that Lee has never been more terrifying. He’s a realistic villain—a bonafide cult leader convinced that bloodshed is the answer to the island’s recent misfortunes. Lee is completely engulfed by the performance as Hardy zooms in on his euphoric signing with his faithful band of followers.

While I must confess that The Wicker Man didn’t entirely win me over at the beginning, the film grows on you with each passing second. I feared that I would never warm to the way Hardy works in some folky musical numbers, but they possess a pull that becomes hard to resist. The final chant around the burning wicker man is unforgettably scary, especially when complimented by Neil’s terrified pleas to God. The film also looks gorgeous, boasting breathtaking cinematography that makes great use of its picturesque Scottish locations. Overall, as far as the “Citizen Kane of horror films” praise is concerned, I don’t particularly believe that the film is scary enough to really earn that title. Sure, it is thought provoking and it certainly is a one of a kind, but it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you. It disturbs more often than it terrifies. However, this isn’t to say that The Wicker Man isn’t a really good film. It’s handsomely made, sharply acted, cleverly written, and it features one of the most powerful climaxes in horror movie history. You will undoubtedly be playing it back in your mind the next day, but it won’t have you switching on a nightlight for weeks after.

Grade: B+

The Wicker Man is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wicked Witches: Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General #2

by Steve Habrat

You don’t have to be a horror fan or cinema buff to know that legendary horror actor Vincent Price was known for his winking villainy. His iconic voice and his mysterious appearance landed him roles in numerous low-budget horror films from William Castle and Roger Corman; two men who knew how to playfully lure an audience into the local drive-in. While he may have made a name for himself grinning at the audience through pictures like House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler, he certainly wasn’t camping up his role in the 1968 witch-hunting horror film Witchfinder General. Directed by Michael Reeves and loosely based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, Witchfinder General is a startlingly dark and brutal look at witch hunting during the English Civil War. Loaded with still-shocking scenes of rape, torture, and graphic execution, Witchfinder General is heavily interested in the realistic side of witch hunting. There are no craggy-faced women huddled around a cauldron, wearing pointy hats, or chanting spells in this witchy horror film. The real monsters of this picture are the men who hunted down innocent civilians and mercilessly tortured them in the hopes that they would confess to conspiring with the devil. That evil is brought to life by Price, who delivers one of the best performances of his career as the “Witchfinder General” himself, Matthew Hopkins.

Witchfinder General begins in 1645, explaining that England is caught in a savage civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. In the midst of the civil war are witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (played by Vincent Price) and his vicious assistant John Stearne (played by Robert Russell). Hopkins and Stearne ride from town to town ferreting out accused witches, torturing them, and then putting them to death. Hopkins and Stearne arrive in the quiet town of Bradeston, where they seek out a priest by the name of John Lowes, who has been accused of being a witch. Hopkins proceeds to torture Lowes right in his own home, but during the process he is stopped Lowes’ beautiful niece Sara (played by Hilary Dwyer). Sara offers herself to Hopkins in the hopes that he will spare her uncle. Her deal works for a while, but after Stearne discovers what is going on, he rapes Sara and hints that he knows what Hopkins has been up to. Hopkins immediately orders that Lowes be put to death, and then hastily departs once the execution has been carried out. Devastated, Sara turns to her fiancé, Richard Marshall (played by Ian Ogilvy), a Roundhead soldier who has returned for his bride. Enraged by Sara’s story, Richard sets out to find the witch hunters and make them pay for what they have done.

After only five minutes, it’s pretty clear that Witchfinder General is learning towards exploitative horror. The viewer is forced to watch an accused witch is drug to her death by a silent procession. She screams and cries the entire way, her pleas for her life ignored as she is strung up in a noose and then violently dropped. Reeves never cuts away from the death, allowing the unnerving realism to really sink in. Watching the senseless murder in the distance is Hopkins, making sure his gruesome work is mercilessly carried out to the max. This is exactly how Witchfinder General plays out, with prolonged scenes of torture and death. With such a glaringly small budget (a majority of the film takes place outside with only a handful of extras in each shot), the gore effects are surprisingly good, not overly elaborate yet graphic and painful nonetheless. We are treated to a horrific procedure where suspected witches are dipped into a river from a bridge to see if they float or drown, a cringe-inducing ritual that involves being pricked in the back with a needle, a nasty kick to the eyeball with a horse spur, an unblinking burning, and a gruesome murder that finds one character being hacked up with an axe. There is not one nasty scene in the film that feels cheap or fake despite the fact that the blood being used resembles melted candle wax.

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The violence of Witchfinder General certainly shocks, but it’s the unbelievably chilly performance from Price that will absolutely floor the viewer. It is widely said that Reeves didn’t want Price in the role of Hopkins and he made his feelings known on the set. With Hopkins, Price is all business, shooting squinty and suspicious looks at each and every man, woman, and child that steps in his line of sight. He rides proudly through town, proclaiming that he does such great work in the name of the Lord that his superiors have taken to calling him the “Witchfinder General,” a title he wears with bloodthirsty glee. The performance is amazingly vile and it’s obvious that Price reached into some dark places to muster that performance. Equally nasty is Russell as John Stearne, the sadistic torturer who enjoys bragging about his profession in town pubs. His behavior in the torture cells is wicked, but it’s the way he drunkenly composes himself in public that is beyond repulsive. Pitted against these two hounds of Hell is Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall, who trembles with rage over the atrocious acts that these two men have carried out. He rides like lightning across the countryside searching high and low for his targets and when he finds them, he becomes an unstoppable killing machine.

Made for a little over $100,000, Witchfinder General doesn’t really have much in the way of lavish sets or chilling atmosphere. It gets under your skin with the violence and depravity that can lurk in each and every one of us. With much of the film-taking place outdoors, Reeves makes excellent use of the scenic English countryside. There are only a few major set pieces, one being a desecrated home/church that Hopkins has left in ruin and another is an outdoor sequence in the town of Lavenham. The scene finds Hopkins burning a woman to death right smack dab in the middle of the town while the villagers look on with the coldest expressions imaginable. It’s probably the grandest and most terrifying sequence of the entire film. The rest of the epic scale is milked through wide shots of green fields, roaring beaches, and early autumn forests. Overall, off-screen tensions and tight budgets aside, Witchfinder General is an incredibly powerful witch-hunt horror film that rattles the viewer with its unspeakably real violence. It’s through this realistic tone that Reeves is able to examine the appalling underbelly of humanity and rub our faces right in the violence. The film also achieves greatness through Price, who blazes through the carnage like the devil incarnate. It’s a performance that you never knew existed in Price and one you will never forget. A gruesome cult classic.

Grade: A-

Witchfinder General is available on DVD.

Wicked Witches: The Witches (1967)

The Witches #1

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.

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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.

Grade: D+

The Witches is available on DVD.