“And Now the Screaming Starts!” UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature
‘Bloody Love It: ‘The Witches’
“Give me a gown of golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in…”
The school holidays are drawing to a close, and as one of those summer skivers who is now preparing to get back in the saddle to embark upon another academic year, I thought it fitting to look back at a classic 1960’s Hammer, set partly in a school, for which I have a great affection – Cyril Frankel’s ‘The Witches’, released in 1966 and starring the well-known Oscar-winning actress, Joan Fontaine.
Feeling a tad uninspired by the comparative lack of suitable parts on offer since her winning role in Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’, she brought the screen rights to a novel by Peter Curtis (the pen-name of writer Nora Lofts) – ‘The Devil’s Own’. Nigel Kneale adapted the novel into the screenplay for Hammer Productions and filming then took place at Bray Studios, very much the home of Hammer between the early 50’s and mid-60’s.
‘The Witches’ centres around Fontaine’s good-natured yet troubled head mistress, Gwen Mayfield – who, we discover in the dramatic opening scene, worked for a time in a village school in Africa which sadly fell victim to a rebellion seemingly influenced by witchcraft. The trauma of this event led to Gwen suffering a psychological breakdown, which thankfully she recovers from to the extent that she is able to accept a new position back home in rural England, at Heddaby School. Furnished with a comfortable new home and welcomed by the apparently friendly villagers, Gwen feels optimistic about her future, and is delighted to be introduced by local ‘vicar’ Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) to his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh), a renowned journalist and writer.
However, Gwen very quickly begins to notice certain habitual curiousities within the day-to-day goings-on of the village and its inhabitants, and mutterings of hocus-pocus and occult dabbling reach her ears, particularly concerning her pupil Linda (Ingrid Brett), and Linda’s rather sinister grandmother Mrs Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies). Linda and her grandmother are believed by some villagers to practise witchcraft, and when a young school friend of Linda falls seriously ill, many believe the cause to be malicious and occult in nature. After some investigation, Gwen becomes worried that young Linda herself may well be being prepared for some form of human sacrifice – sadly, before Gwen can uncover the truth she suffers a second breakdown and finds herself in a rest home, nearly a year later, with a severe case of amnesia. As she slowly regains her memories of the events in Heddaby, she becomes concerned for the welfare of Linda Rigg and bravely manages to escape back to the village, determined to rescue her pupil from harm – if she is alive yet…
‘The Witches’, for me, is a favourite Hammer on the one hand because of its setting, storyline and the themes it explores – it is essentially the first and only film from the company to explore the notion and continued existence of British witchcraft ‘writ large’ – as in, the rural traditional witchcraft practised and passed down through the ages and generations rather than straight-up Satanism as such (although I concede that many of the traditions, tools, magical words etc. shown and referenced are absolutely not found in either modern or historical Wicca or paganism!), pre-dating the more successful similarly-themed ‘The Wicker Man’ by a few years. The film delves into the notion and indeed fear that witchcraft – the bad type – still exists beneath the surface, hiding in plain sight within our most pleasant-seeming hamlets, which one can’t deny for the time was a juicy premise for a horror title. The title poster simply included the question “Does Witchcraft Exist Today?” to catch the attention of audiences who may have by this point been craving a different type of tale to the usual Gothic monster novel re-workings, ‘swashbucklers’ and invasions from other-worldy beings. ‘The Witches’ offers a more human, close-to-home story of a kind-hearted middle-aged teacher battling mental illness and trying with the odds stacked against her to protect her new pupils and community, which arguably had every reason ‘on paper’ to be well-received by Hammer fans and 1960’s movie-goers in general.
A second reason I love the film is the casting – particularly of the two leads. Fontaine delivers a wonderfully fragile, vulnerable performance as the nevertheless determined and calculating Gwen, who exudes gentle charm towards her new village co-habitants and displays a genuine concern for and warmth-filled rapport with all the pupils on screen. Opposite her is the fantastic Kay Walsh as the witty, domineering Stephanie. Talk about two strong female characters – and this is a 1960’s film that would pass the modern ‘Bechdel Test’ with absolute flying colours! The various villagers and the younger cast members are all high quality too, with Michelle ‘Ooh, Betty’ Dotrice, the superbly unsettling Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and Alec McCowen all providing a strong support in their roles.
Also, without wanting to give too much away, this particular Hammer production includes one of my favourite ever set-pieces in any film from the company’s ample back catalogue. At the film’s climax, Gwen, now close to the truth of Heddaby’s secret, finds herself witness to a bizarre and unsettling group ritual involving many of the village’s usually wholesome-seeming residents, and what unfolds is a fantastically choreographed, semi-orgiastic act of trance-like power-raising featuring no-holds barred acting from all involved which I just find a treat to watch every time (and the sequence features the best and creepiest use of a feline actor in any horror EVS!). Interestingly, director Frankel and screen writer Kneale were apparently not all that enthused with the film’s climax, feeling it was rather over-the-top and indeed bordering on comical, but this viewer looking at it fifty years later cannot help but find it fascinatingly enjoyable, if not especially frightening, and I can only presume and hope I am not alone in that.
Sadly, ‘The Witches’ was met with lukewarm and rather disappointing critical and financial reception on its release, and turned out to not be the hit that both Fontaine and Hammer had envisaged (it poignantly was to be Fontaine’s last ever film role, with the actress retiring to television for the succeeding thirty years of her career). Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes sum up the film’s tone and possibly the reasons for its uninspiring reception, in their excellent work on Hammer’s history ‘The Hammer Story’; “When ‘The Witches’ strikes the right balance, it succeeds as an engrossing thriller, even if it ultimately disappoints as a Hammer.”
True enough, the film is not a classic Bray Studios schlocker in that it presents the viewer with no real jarring scares or the visual hook of an actual ‘creature’ to fixate our fears on – and one could suppose that at the time that that was what the public needed and expected from the home of British horror. But I believe it’s an understated, well-characterised piece whose only really noticeable fault is a slightly too neat and easily-accepted ending. ‘The Witches’ is a gentle, character-driven horror which was undoubtedly overshadowed by succeeding horror films of the same type of theme, but of the many Hammers out there for me its beguiling acting and well-paced sense of mystery make it one of the strongest.