Screenplay: Nigel Kneale
Cast: Joan Fontaine (as Gwen Mayfield); Kay Walsh (as Stephanie Bax); Alec McCowen (as Alan Bax); Ann Bell (as Sally Benson); Ingrid Boulting (as Linda Rigg)
Synopsis: After a traumatising end to her career in colonial Africa, Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) moves to a small rural village to become the schoolmistress. It becomes obvious that a malignant power is within the community, practicing witchcraft and hexing anyone who goes against their wishes, and as Mayfield uncovers more, her own life and soul is under threat as much as anyone else's.
With The Witches, I cannot help but find the reason finally why I've been left cold to some Hammer films. I enjoyed The Witches immensely but the problem is here. Many of them have a depiction of the British as the passionless and passive which I find disappointing. Even though conservative values exist in many other horror films, normalcy usually winning against the transgression against them, you can still find the untamed and the chaotic bubbling away under the surface in many of these films even if it's an unintentional subtext. A few of the Hammer films I've seen have suffered from the normalacy you're supposed to be on the side on being a stereotype with no depth, where the working class are two dimensional yokels and anyone a class higher is the kind of figure you have satirised in a sketch from Monty Python. Where the heroes especially the English ones dangerous edge towards the stereotypes of British culture, that for all their connoisseur knowledge of wines and the occult they're the middle class at their most blandest. I've found that other British horror films, The Wicker Man (1973) an obvious one but even films I've unfairly dismissed like Death Line (1972), have far more fascinating and rich depictions of the British when they're good or memorable, where even the grimy streets have a charm and vitality to them to match the character actors onscreen. If it wasn't for how dynamic and talented actors likes Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were, I can't even find pleasure in siding with the Satanists or evil force as they're as in danger of being reduced to the equivalent of a bland cheese and wine party as well, and its not a surprise some of the most rewarding Hammer films are either very different from the others or have Lee and/or Cushing in them.
This is a problem with that, when you're supposed to sympathise with those representing normalcy, you don't necessarily sympathise with the villains instead but feel it come off as a detraction. With The Witches thankfully this doesn't completely undermine the film but it does leave it with flaws. The beginning sequence, with Mayfield in African being terrified by an African witchdoctor, has a sweltering and panicked atmosphere already that makes it stand out, making the change to the village for the rest of the film jarring for many reasons. (It also includes a surprise cameo by a very young Rudolph Walker; I know of him as the far more older, world weary policeman working under an incompetent senior inspector played by Rowan Atkinson in The Thin Blue Line (1995-6)). When you get to the village, entrenched fully into it, the normalcy of the cherub faced school kids Mayfield teaches and the housewives gathering around the charity second hand stalls feel like a curse of lifelessness in itself. It's supposed to be the good thing against the evil witches, but as someone who's seen documentary footage from this era and earlier, there's so much absent in these humble, quaint depictions you find especially in the Hammer films that it becomes slightly detracting here. Were it not for the beautiful English countryside, it's not a surprise people got bored in this village and turned to witchcraft. There's the possibility that, considering the secret behind the witchcraft coven, that this is on purpose as a social comment, but the kids are so angelically bland that it's probably not the case.
The Witches is still entertaining regardless of this, and when this problem is contradicted by the content of the film itself, things get remarkably more interesting. Returning back in the season, Nigel Kneale wrote the screenplay. You can detect the same mind behind the Quatermass television and film adaptations, here explaining the possibilities of witchcraft through a then-modern and intellectual mindset. If he had added a few more of the eccentricities and character fleshing out you find in his Quatermass work a large deal of my issues with The Witches would be gone immediately. There are pockets of tantalising things instead that are very watchable. A standout for this is Kay Walsh as Stephanie Bax, a writer and scholar who's an older, no-nonsense woman who dresses in suit clothes and explains the possibilities of witchcraft with the naturalness of a modern intellectual discussing a sociological issue. [SPOILER WARNING] When its revealed she's the main antagonist, the film manages to bring out a shining gem of an idea where it's the rational intellectual, a charismatic woman at that, who's using black magic. With the intention of using a fourteen year old girl she's feels is a worthless imbecile to become youthful again, Ingrid Boulting who's mix of childlike behaviour and physical appearance brings up a troubling sexual mutability to the character, Bax has no issue in claiming no difference between an ancient magical text and atomic energy, turning the idea of occultism on its head in the process in a fascinating way. It does lead to some silly events at a Satanic orgy, with worm eating and the least expected choreographed dance scene possible in context, but this blackly humorous idea does stand out as a shining moment.[SPOILER WARNING END]
The intrigue and suspense that takes place, including Mayfield finding herself disorientated and placed in a nursing home away from the village, is interesting especially for the central period where the plot does something different, having the protagonist lost of memory and having to pick up where she was from the beginning. Fontaine did grow on me, playing the at-first ineffectual schoolmistress that shows more and more nerve and courage hidden behind her bold hairstyle and clothes as the stakes around her become much more troubling. This was her last feature film and she's clearly involved with it with conviction, helping the film by making sure this protagonist isn't bland. How the film resolves itself is through a single, simple thing that should sound anticlimax on paper but comes off as another inspired moment from a Nigel Kneale script, where rather than the plain and average characters you usually get in films like this who stumble through a situation, an act of intelligence wins out done at the right moment.
One thing I can never find any criticisms of in Hammer films especially when they're in colour is their visual appearance. Low budget films, they yet can be eye-popping when everything clicks. It came as an advantage when they added blood to the horror stories, cementing their reputation, and in The Witches you have plenty of examples to choose from, the lush English countryside where even the sheep fields have a grit to them to the almost psychedelic colours of the Satanic orgy near the end.
Abstract Spectrum: None
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing to detail.
Still showing the traits I'm not a fan of in Hammer, The Witches has grown on me as I've typed this review up. Not the best it could've been but still immensely entertaining.