It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt and that’s certainly true in the case of The Witches. Decades of being aired on TV, in post-pub timeslots, has done much to damage the reputation of this chilling pastoral horror. Fortunately StudioCanal’s new restoration of this neglected film has returned The Witches to its rightful place as part of the wider cannon of memorable Hammer Studio films.
Adapted by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale from Gwen Mayfield’s best selling novel The Devil’s Own, The Witches is frequently miss-sold as a Hammer ‘horror’ although it’s more of a supernatural thriller in the mould of The Wicker Man, than the studio’s usual blend of blood and well-endowed bimbos.
Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield who after tangling with black magic while serving as a missionary in Africa, returns to England to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. There, she is hired by the wealthy Baxes to teach in their privately run school in the quiet village of Hambledon.
Nigel Kneale’s thoughtful and often funny script presents us with a cast of emotionally damaged and fragile personalities. Fontaine is excellent as the tightly-wound Mayfield and there are echoes of her performance in Suspicion – for which she won an Oscar – in the nervous energy and repressed anxiety she brings to the role. Alec McCowen plays Alan Bax as a tortured man who clearly wants to do right thing but is preternaturally afraid to do so. However it’s Kay Walsh as the village’s imperious materfamilias, Stephanie Bax, who steals the film. Stephanie is a magnificently abominable creation, gingerly treading the fine line between pantomime villain and crazed genius. The lesbian subtext between Stephanie and Gwen adds an extra jagged edge to the scenes between the female leads and the already multilayered plotline.
Agatha Christie loved a good English village mystery precisely because of the claustrophobic nature of village life and scriptwriter Kneale and Director Cyril Frankel clearly enjoy playing with that. Once settled in Hambledon, Gwen quickly discovers that untamed Africa is far less dangerous than any insular, semi-feudal English village. Hambledon even has its own coven where magic is practiced with all the quiet savagery of the civilized world.
Throughout the film Kneale – always the satirist – plays with the humour inherent in the very idea of an English witch coven. Hammer, though, clearly wanted it played straight. The result can be a bit of a tug of war at times, with some scenes being dragged into the realm of the camp and kitsch then back, unceremoniously, onto solid ground. The film’s denouement has been roundly mocked by film fans over the years but it’s a minor fly in the ointment especially when re-viewed with Kneale’s wry eye. Imagine the white, middle aged, middle class residents of your typical English village engaging in a back magic mass and, yes, the results are sure to look silly.
Frankel’s direction too is as deft and sure as Kneale’s script. His slow-burn achieves exactly what it sets out to do; unnerve. The Witches may be short of shocks and gore but it’s as tense and as taut as a high wire act. Re-watched with a fresh perspective, this is a film that emerges as a worthy rival to Home Counties chillers such as The Blood on Satan’s Claw and make a fitting edition to StudioCanal’s growing Hammer back catalogue.
StudioCanal’s The Witches is out on DVD/Blu-ray double play on October 21st.