The Witches (UK, 1966)
I consider myself a Hammer fan. They were in their autumn years as a film studio when I was a child, but they were still contemporary enough to define my idea of what a horror film was throughout my formative years. While some of their films have aged poorly, and are certainly tame by modern standards, I find a charm in their campy earnestness that keeps me going back all these years later. Even so, there are still a handful of Hammer horror films I’ve never seen (and many I saw so long ago that I may as well have not seen them).
When I was digging through my Hammer boxed set in preparation for this month, I realised that I’d never watched The Witches. When I looked up its IMDB entry and realised that the script was by Nigel Kneale, I knew I had to rectify this. Interestingly, Kneale would later explore similar subject matter in Murrain, an episode of the TV series Against the Crowd. If you have the DVD set of Kneale’s excellent programme Beasts, Murrain is one of the bonus features.
Adapted from the novel The Devil’s Own by Peter Curtis (a pseudonym of Norah Lofts), The Witches is an early example of what has come to be known as Folk Horror, a very British sub-genre that places tales of witchcraft and the occult in a rural setting. The Witches can almost be seen as a template for films like The Wicker Man, with its pagan occult conspiracy hiding beneath the surface of mundane village life.
The story follows Gwen Mayfield (played by Joan Fontaine in her final feature film performance), a middle-aged English woman who has returned home after teaching in Africa, convalescent after being caught in an uprising tinged with occult aspects. The opening scene of the school under assault from men in ritual masks holds the most arresting imagery the film has to offer. While this attack presages later events, and Mayfield’s survival almost certainly steels her for the further horrors she faces, I found myself wishing more had been made of it.
Mayfield is hired as the headmistress of a private school in Heddaby, a village somewhere in the English countryside. Her employer is Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), who lives in the local manor house along with his sister, Stephanie, a successful journalist. Alan plays at being the local vicar despite having no standing in the church. It is in its characters that The Witches finds its strength; the Bax siblings in particular are classic English eccentrics, both charming and slightly repellent, and the peculiarities of their lives are more compelling than any occult horrors the film has to offer.
The story engages fully as Mayfield becomes entangled in the ill-fated romance between two of her teenage pupils. Not only does the girl’s grandmother (who is only missing a neon sign over her head to announce that she’s a witch) disapprove, but the whole community seems to be working to keep the two would-be lovers apart. As Mayfield learns more about the motivations behind the community’s actions, she is drawn into conspiracy and madness, ultimately encountering the source of the source of Heddaby’s sinister strangeness.
While it certainly deserves to be remembered, I would hesitate to call The Witches an overlooked classic. Kneale’s script builds a nice sense of paranoia and gives voice to some pleasingly strange characters, but the pay-off is dull and predictable. Given that The Wicker Man came shortly after, using similar tropes to build to an unforgettable conclusion, The Witches has aged badly in comparison. Despite this, the ecstatic, near-orgiastic rites of the coven are striking and almost shocking even to modern eyes, which saves the climax from being dull.
As with many older horror films, watching The Witches at the time of its release would have been a profoundly different experience, without the story struggling under the shadows of newer, stronger works. Even so, The Witches remains a charming and entertaining oddity, filled with strange characters and an undeniable sense of menace.