Things seem to be on the up for English teacher Gwen Mayfield after her return from Africa teaching in a mission school, where she suffered a traumatic experience at the hands of the local witch doctors. After returning to England having suffered a nervous breakdown she lands the headship of a small private school in the sleepy English village of Heddaby. The school is funded by wealthy brother and sister pair Alan and Stephanie Bax. This job is just what Gwen needs and she is happy to accept but when she moves to the village she begins to notice some odd behaviour amongst the local inhabitants. What is going on behind the net curtains of this sleepy village? Could Voodoo and witchcraft be the cause of the sudden illnesses and deaths in a local family or is Gwen imagining things, her tragic experience in Africa coming back to haunt her?
There's something about idyllic rural England in the same way as white picket fence America that lends itself to tales of black magic and horror. The idea that beneath the seemingly perfect surface and the genteel manners and friendliness of the locals lie a dark nasty underbelly has attracted and tempted many writers and filmmakers. Many works of fiction and films over the years have used this incongruity, this fear that all is not what it seems and that even in the heart of a perfect community you still can't sleep safely at night.
FIRE BURN AND CAULDRON BUBBLE
Hammer studios managed to get a bona fide Hollywood legend for this project, an Oscar winner no less, Joan Fontaine. Fontaine was a real Hollywood 'A' lister, younger sister of film star Olivia De Havilland Fontaine had won an Oscar in 1941 for best actress in her role in Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock directing and was nominated on two further occasions including as best actress in another Hitchcock film Rebecca. To be fair this was rather a swan song for her since her star billing wasn't quite what it used to be and she never really continued a film career to any extent after 'The Witches' nevertheless she is still a name that people remember today and she was certainly a big name for Hammer to lead one of its films. Fontaine in fact had bought the screen rights to the original story 'The Devil's Own' by Peter Curtis in 1962 and approached Hammer with the project. Hammer arranged for a screenplay by Nigel Kneale, creator of Quatermass a long time Hammer collaborator and the film was finally made under the direction of Fontaine approved Cyril Frankel. The rest of the cast is made up by a quality ensemble of top British character actors including Leonard Rossiter, Michele Dotrice, Alec McCowen and Kay Walsh along with many other familiar faces.
This was to be one of the last films made at the famous Hammer Bray studios before production moved to Elstree and Pinewood and in many ways marked the end of era for Hammer film. Looking back on it now the story of modern witchcraft in small communities seems rather passé and it has been done better other later films like 'The Wicker Man' and indeed other Hammer films like the 'Devil Rides Out'. The story lacks bite and there certainly is a lack of shocks or scares in this film. Everything starts off well enough as we see the events in Africa contrasted with the idyllic scenes of village life in England but the initial sense of mystery and intrigue isn't sustained and the story winds its way to a fairly predictable and underwhelming end.
On the plus side the locations are good, the exteriors mostly filmed in the pretty Buckinghamshire countryside and the supporting acting is fine as would be expected from such an experienced cast although Fontaine in the central role does overdo things a bit and her performance comes across as rather dated by today's less showy acting styles. Probably the best performances in the films are those of Kay Walsh as an enigmatic journalist Stephanie Bax who quickly befriends Gwen and acts as her confidant when strange things start to happen and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, as the overbearing grandmother who might know more about the strange occurrences than she actually makes out.
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL!
While there are some good moments in the film there are also some quite cringe-making scenes too. I always have a problem with films dealing with the occult and black magic especially when showing the satanic rituals that the witches' coven invariably performs before the obligatory human sacrifice. The occultist usually start some appallingly choreographed dancing or more precisely some ritualistic 'swaying' that always looks too well rehearsed for a spontaneous show of satanic worship. True to form this film indulges in the classic ritual cavorting with a little suggested devil worshipping sex for good measure, yet the whole scene is so tame and laughable that the film can only manage a lowly 12 certificate much lower than any self-respecting horror film would hope for. With little or no gore, no nudity and few genuine shocks this film will leave many modern horror fans feeling short changed. Nigel Kneale the scriptwriter was also not happy with the end result. He stated that the idea of people playing at being witches could easily come across on screen as ridiculous if not handled properly by the director. There has to be an element of menace and real horror for such scenes to work, unfortunately Frankel fails in this respect and the whole thing does become slightly farcical at the end.
There are some nice touches the camera work is often quite clever in its use of zooming and close ups especially in the early sequences in Africa. The interior set designs are good and in true Hammer tradition the colours are vibrant and bold. Also worthy of a mention is the excellent music score at the start of the movie; all voodoo drums keeping an incessant beat with jazz undertones it is unusual and memorable.
Ultimately the film suffers by missing its mark and its target audience. It really isn't scary or shocking enough to work as a horror and its story is not clever enough to succeed as a thriller. Really the most thrilling thing about the film was the DVD cover!
CAST, DVD TECHNICAL DETAILS AND BONUS MATERIAL
Joan Fontaine ... Gwen Mayfield
Kay Walsh ... Stephanie Bax
Alec McCowen ... Alan Bax
Ann Bell ... Sally Benson
Ingrid Boulting ... Linda Rigg
John Collin ... Dowsett
Michele Dotrice ... Valerie Creek
Gwen Ffrangcon Davies ... Granny Rigg
Duncan Lamont ... Bob Curd
Leonard Rossiter ... Dr. Wallis
Run Time: 91 minutes
This DVD was part of the Hammer collection and as with other releases in this series there is no bonus material included apart from the original trailer. The trailer gives the impression that the film is a lot scarier than it actually is and as usual is quite misleading although quite fun to watch. Standard scene selection option is also included but unfortunately no other bonus material.
'The Witches (aka 'The Devil's Own': US release) can be bought on DVD from Amazon.co.uk for £3.99 (including p&p) at time of writing this review.
Possibly recommended but of more interest to Hammer than to horror fans.