The Witches (1966)
Now, if you’re anything like myself, you’ll find a Hammer horror film irresistible – From undisputed classics such as The Devil Rides Out or The Curse Of Frankenstein, to their lesser fare such as Dracula AD 1972 or even the godawful Ralph Bates starrer Horror Of Frankenstein, I can’t get enough of their low-budget-but-always-professional outings, and I for one was overjoyed when the recently resurrected company came back with such strong material as Let Me In and the astoundingly good Wake Wood.
The Witches concerns a woman (Joan Fontaine) who suffered some kind of traumatic experience whilst working for a mission in Africa – something about witchdoctors forcing an uprising, although it’s never really gone into in any detail. To recover from her mental breakdown she takes a job as headmistress at a private school in the country, which at first seems idyllic, until she gradually realises darker forces are at work in the village (I’ll give you a clue here – Read the title of the film again). When she is about to expose the village’s elderly witch for what she believes is murder, she suddenly suffers another breakdown and her memory is wiped...will she recover enough to expose the conspiracy of witchcraft?
The Witches at first seems an atypical outing – It’s a Joan Fontaine vehicle for one, which she co-produced (stories abound of her being very dissatisfied with her working conditions and of possibly being upstaged by her co-star Kay Walsh), and features none of Hammer’s regular stock of actors, although the ones who appear (Leonard Rossiter as a suspicious doctor, Michele Dotrice aka Betty from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em as a young housekeeper) are of top quality – are excellent, with special merit being given to Kay Walsh as a provoctative newspaper columnist and Alec McCowan as her obviously rather unhinged brother (we first see him dressed as a priest, but it soon transpires he wears the collar ‘for comfort’). Also of merit is the script by the late, great, ever-reliable Nigel Kneale, which touches on British folklore and Pagan traditions several years before The Wicker Man appeared – In fact, there are many parallels to that film here. In its first half the film is actually quite brilliant – with an air of mystery gradually unfolding, and some great humorous touches and a very intelligent, adult feel to the whole thing. Unfortunately, whether to do with what was allowed on-screen at the time, or by a massive mis-step by director Cyril Frankel (mostly known for directing episodes of every cool TV series from the 70’s), the entire film is deflated by a ludicrous final sequence – It probably won’t be too much of a spoiler to tell you that there is a black mass, but the way it’s portrayed looks frankly like a bunch of posh stage school actors in ripped clothes improvising a voodoo dance, which, well, is probably what it is, and it’s utterly laughable.
I’d watched most of the film genuinely excited that I’d discovered a lost classic of British horror in fact, and remarked such at the time. Unfortunately, when the credits rolled, my opinion had changed to ‘oh’. My advice would be to watch it up until the scene where the cat is (literally) let out of the bag (actually quite disturbing, this bit!), and then attempt to forgive the last 15 minutes. Or watch something else instead. C’est la vie!