Home Video Hovel: The Witches, by Alexander Miller
Slow-burning rural horror is not what you think of in reference to Hammer’s immense body of chillers, thrillers and adventure films. But The Witches, their low-key foray into the supernatural is just that. Movies like Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, the BBC teleplay Whistle and I’ll Come to You and the most well-known, The Wicker Man, are now toted as frontrunners of this horror subgenre.
At this point in time, Hammer was branching out onto a more broad horror canvas. Their production model was changing, they established a partnership with Warner-Seven Arts and they were cranking out two movies at a time using the same sets. The Reptile was shot alongside Plague of the Zombies; same with Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk.
However, The Witches eschewed this back-to-back model, although the aforementioned films, more energized titles from Hammer’s mid-to-late 60s era, might exceed The Witches in excitement level. However, this Cyril Frankel directed Joan Fontaine vehicle isn’t a garish shocker but a patient and moody outing that holds back while Hammer films garnered a reputation for doing the opposite.
The first act delivers a pre-credit scare sequence, putting us in a remote African locale. In a panicked state, a teacher, Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine), is packing up her goods with two locals (fans will likely recognize Yemi Goodman Yjibae as the Satanist from The Devils Rides Out).
Something is closing in, there are creepy voodoo trinkets about and the credits roll after a freaky shaman sporting a body mask bursts through the door. Tightened up with atmospheric suspense and a generic but effective score from Richard Rodney Bennett, we slide into an immersive, smoke filled, red filter credit sequence that typifies the genre at the point with 60s art deco stylistics.
After Gwen’s traumatizing experience in Africa, she’s relocated and is settling into her new digs, teaching grade school in the remote rural village of Habbady and what could possibly go wrong? While there’s time to appreciate the slow-burn approach of the first act, The Witches can be simultaneously interpreted as just slow. There are red herrings, false starts and some curious happenings but the quaint country life is only suggestively toppled by a ripple of mysterious behavior. Subtlety is the master ingredient in any thoughtful horror movie but The Witches suffers because there’s not enough subtext or dimension to the lead character for us get lost in, which feels like an opportunity squandered given the presence of Fontaine in the leading role. Despite this relative misstep, Fontaine is thoroughly compelling throughout. As evidenced by Hammer’s films to this point, the performers routinely invest themselves into their roles and don’t default to cheapening the material. Clearly, Fontaine is no exception and, being a class act, brings her A-game to the show. Seeing as this is the age of the slightly reductive but perversely appealing “psycho-biddy” genre, Whatever to Baby Jane? clones (Dead Ringer, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Strait Jacket) were cropping up and Hammer was no stranger to jumping on the exploitation bandwagon. And yet, Hammer’s foray into this territory is done with a great deal more tact and originality than with the Bette Davis vehicles The Nanny and, to a lesser extent, the oddball comedy The Anniversary. It’s rumored that Fontaine was expected to don frumpy garb and play on her age but instead opted to retain her natural beauty (which she had in spades) and play the character straight. We’re all the better for it too.
Despite the sometimes choppy first act, the movie distinguishes itself by the third act. The payoff and our journey to it is worth the patience the film’s earlier sections require. One of Hammer’s more unique entries (which is saying something) offers an oddly mature interpretation of witchcraft that trades traditional mysticism for a more sober treatment of the dark arts. That’s not to mention it’s not without its campy charm replete with dancing and mystical mumbo jumbo. The Witches is a strange brew but a fun batch that’s hard to put the finger on.
Once again Shout!/Scream Factory has done Hammer justice with a beautiful transfer that’s leaps and bounds better than the StudioCanal release back in 2014. The Hammer Glamour featurette is another plus to the set, featuring some funny, candid interviews from Martine Beswick, Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, and Madeline Smith. The only drawback is the commentary from Ted Newsom, whose insights eventually come off as ageist and sexist; maybe it was his derogatory remarks in reference to Joan Crawford’s body in movies like Strait Jacket? I guess that’s why they have those disclaimers on DVDs and Blu-rays, in case they end up with a douchebag on their hands.