Director: Cyril Frankel
By Roderick Heath
Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he worked chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a fine slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).
The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.
After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby. Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, making him vulnerable to secret forces who control the village, and want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised.
Gwen makes a disturbing discovery, of a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for the female figurine she perpetually sports. Gwen finds this hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins, and it stirs her suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.
Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point. Although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).
Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slowly manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as when Ronnie tries to alert Gwen, claiming to have seen Linda being punished by Granny Rigg, who jammed her hand into a clothes wringer. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood-and-boobs formula of many later Hammer works. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge when she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting, and whose most recognisable role is perhaps the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).
Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.
The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.
The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, if slightly grating bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.
When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.
The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.
The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity. Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.
Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured as she conducts her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.
The appended coda is a happy ending but rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone, even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.