Whether you enjoy Hammer’s 1966 movie The Witches depends very much on what you expect from your horror movies. If you expect a film dripping with gore that will scare you out of your wits, then don’t bother with this one. There’s no gore and it’s not the least bit scary. If you want an atmosphere of subtle weirdness and suppressed evil then you might think slightly more highly of this one.
Joan Fontaine is Gwen Mayfield, an English teacher at a mission school in Africa. She gets caught up in a tribal rebellion fomented by witch-doctors and suffers a mental breakdown. After making a slow recovery she applies for a job as head teacher in small private school in the sleepy little English village of Heddaby. At first it seems idyllic, although it is a little puzzling that the village’s only church has lain in ruins for several centuries, and that the ice young clergyman who offered her the job turns out not to be a man of the cloth at all, but the local lord of the manor. And wearing a fake clerical collar is just one of Alan Bax’s little eccentricities. She’s also a little surprised to find one of her pupils, 14-year-old Linda, still carrying around a doll. Especially since Linda has clearly reached the stage of taking an interest in boys, and spends a good deal of time with young Ronnie Dowsett.
Gwen’s discovery that young Ronnie is extremely gifted and worthy of special attention also provokes a slightly odd reaction from both the boys’ parents and Alan Bax. More dolls make their appearance, and there are stories of odd happenings, of people falling ill without any rational explanation. Gwen begins to suspect that Linda’s grandmother may be playing at witchcraft. At first this seems merely amusing, a quaint survival of old beliefs in 1960s Britain, but soon Miss Mayfield finds cause to suspect that these events may have a more sinister aspect. The discovery of a doll stuck with pins, another unexplained illness, and a mysterious drowning all serve to heighten Gwen’s fears. And after what she saw in Africa, she is particularly susceptible to such fears.
Gwen takes Alan Bax’s sister Stephanie into her confidence, Stephanie having something of an interest in the occult. When Linda disappears it becomes increasingly likely that some sinister fate may be awaiting the girl.
The first half of the movie is quite good. The mood of something not quite right about the village, of a certain wrongness about things and people, is built up subtly but skillfully. The problem is that the payoff falls rather flat. With a script by Nigel Kneale you expect more than this. I suspect the problem was that Cyril Frankel as director was simply not up to the job, and was unable to deliver the finale that the movie needed. The film is also somewhat hampered by censorship restrictions, with a rather ridiculous orgy scene in which everyone is fully clothed. There’s a complete lack of any erotic charge to this movie, and a movie dealing with witchcraft and/or the survival of pagan beliefs in the modern world really needs some kind of erotic frisson. The whole exercise suffers from a fatal blandness.
At this time also Hammer was still, at least in their gothic horror films, too locked in to the “good must triumph and evil must be vanquished” mentality. In the hands of a skillful director like Terence Fisher such movies could still generate a real feeling of suspense (as in Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out) but in the hands of lesser directors and combined with the lack of eroticism and the lack of blood it could easily result in a movie that is much too predictable and lacking in excitement. Such is the case here.
It’s not a complete loss though. The film was a personal project for Joan Fontaine who had liked the original novel The Devil's Own enough to but the movie rights. And her instincts were sound enough. The potential was there, and she was certainly perfect for the role of Gwen Mayfield and does a fine job. Kay Walsh is equally good as Stephanie Bax. The acting overall is very solid. With Bernard Robinson as production designer and Arthur Grant as cinematographer the movie looks good.
This is definitely a lesser Hammer film, but still worth a look if you’re a major fan of 60s British horror. It’s one to rent rather than buy though.