The Witches (1966 Britain)

There are things that keep you watching here, of course; there always are in a Hammer Horror. I particularly liked the depiction of rural village life in the 1960s; it’s picture postcard stuff, the sort of thing to make me nostalgic for a time I never actually knew. After a hell of a start, The Witches, which could indeed have used a more masterful director like Terence Fisher at the helm, slowly loses its grip. The screenplay is from Nigel Kneale, and he was dissatisfied with this film because he intended it to be a dark comedy that poked fun at witchcraft but Hammer wanted a serious horror movie so all comedic touches were removed. 

Well, there are some funny scenes left, but they are not meant to be funny.

This outing finds Joan Fontaine — yes, tis she in her final film role– warding off a coven of witches who are embedded in a sleepy English country town. Joan has just recovered from a menacing encounter with tribal Africans (shown in a mildly suspenseful prologue) when she takes on the purportedly less dangerous task of headmistress to students at a sedate private school. She is surrounded by an array of suspicious types who may be involved in the increasingly strange behavior concerning a young girl. The girl is nearing womanhood and her romance with a young boy causes much hand wringing in the community. Her spooky, cross-eyed grandmother (played by ugly Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) is especially disturbed.

Fontaine begins to nose around and eventually finds herself victimized by a wild herd of sheep, iconic reminders of her African ordeal, and finally, the coven itself. Audiences from the ’60’s through the ’70’s delighted in watching formerly glamorous, usually Oscar-caliber, stars slumming through low budget horror flicks and this was Fontaine’s turn. She had a financial interest in the film and when it didn’t make the money she was anticipating, she basically retired. She is still a fit and attractive woman in the film, although her hair is a wind-tunneled shock of clown-like strawberry blonde and it is never consistent from frame to frame.

The film manages to produce a certain amount of creepiness amidst the slow pace, but it all turns to camp once the witches come out to play. Never have so many grown adults made such tits of themselves as when the coven starts gyrating around, dancing in tattered clothes like a precursor to the “Thriller” video, suggestively humping each other and even eating dirt-covered slime. The leader wanders around in an antler-like headdress/candelabra containing teeny birthday candles and flails around witchily to choreographed movement. This display of ludicrousness is faint reward for having sat through a rather routine horror mystery. At least it’s a fun glimpse into the fashions and vehicles of 1960’s Britain. Admittedly, this can’t compare to the best that Hammer has to offer, but it remains watchable enough until its finale. It may work better for those who aren’t fans of the studio to begin with. Average stuff.

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Comments

  1. I was surprised at first that I hadn’t heard of this Hammer offering before, but by the end of your review I can now see why ha ha! Do you think it’s worth the watch as an unintentional comedy?

    Liked by 1 person

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