TITLE: The Witches
YEAR RELEASED: 1966
DIRECTOR: Cyril Frankel
CAST: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh and Alec McCowen
REVIEW BY ADAM SCOVELL
A number of Hammer films are considered underrated. Cyril Frankel’s The Witches is one of the more discerning of the less spoken pictures. Perhaps unfairly hiding in the shadow of Hammer’s big, modern occult horror, The Devil Rides Out (1968), it seems nigh on forgotten in discussions on the studio.
The Witches is a forerunner for a number of occult and folk horror films, mixing a sense of safe, countryside isolation with beliefs allowed out of control by this solitude. Joan Fontaine plays a young school teacher, back from teaching in Africa after suffering some sort of breakdown. She takes a job at a local school in a small village only to stumble upon an underground witches’ cove trying to prepare one of her students for sacrifice.
The bulk of the film is held together by Fontaine, who was in her last big film role before moving to Television and TV films. Her often gentle characteristics are put to the test under the pressure of escaping voodoo. Like all of the best British folk horror, The Witches paints the location as idyllic; especially in contrast to the opening scenes in Africa with her trying to flee from some form of voodoo attack.
Suspicions start to arise when the people of the village seem determined to break up the friendship between two of the students. Mrs Mayfield becomes entangled in the mystery leading her to be almost cut off from the community. In some ways the community can be seen as the prototype for the population of Summerisle albeit they are apparently prude rather than obsessed with sex as in The Wicker Man (1973).
Her past begins to haunt her as voodoo elements appear to her, driving her apparently to another breakdown. There’s something extremely Prisoner like about this element of the film. She wakes up in a nursing home which tells her that over a year has passed since she was last in the village, just as she was starting to discover the truth about the village community. Leonard Rossiter gives a great guest spot as the mildly suspicious doctor in an otherwise quite bland cast for Hammer.
Mayfield begins to suspect that all isn’t right and escapes from the home in Television repair van, only to return to the village to find even more suspicious circumstance to greet her until eventually finding herself at the quite barmy voodoo ceremony. The culprit of all of this witchcraft is sadly given away on the modern release’s DVD cover. Suffice to say the lead witch shall not be mentioned here.
Possessing both an unnerving sense of calm, some quite startling visuals (the sacrifice dressed as a weird doll, writhing on the floor) and a gentle but effective lead role, The Witches deserves far more praise than it often gets. Its main comparison is obviously Hammer’s two Dennis Wheatley adaptations but, with that added sense of conspiracy and isolation, The Witches is arguably just as strong a film.
ADAM SCOVELL is a music student specialising in film music. When not obsessively watching and writing about film, he can be found making short films found at www.celluloidwickerman.com