One of Hammer’s strongest ’60s shockers comes to Blu-ray from Scream Factory
Director Cyril Frankel’s 1966 supernatural drama THE WITCHES (based on the novel “The Devil’s Own” by Peter Curtis) might be one of Hammer’s most misunderstood and undervalued productions, with casual admirers of the venerable studio’s output often either ignoring or dismissing it. This is likely due to the film being released squarely in the center of Hammer’s “Golden Age”, when the company had had a near decade-long paydirt mining and perfecting Gothic melodrama and more sensational shockers. It defied audience expectations and needs, in some respects. But Frankel’s eerie mystery is more in-line with the studio’s post-PSYCHO “Mini-Hitchcock” thrillers, material like Frankel’s own queasy NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM STRANGERS, but one armed with a supernatural twist and buoyed by two mature female leads in the cast. But unlike Hammer’s 1965 scenery-chomper DIE, DIE MY DARLING – in which an aged and deranged Talulah Bankhead out-babied BABY JANE – THE WITCHES is no pandering horror-hagsploitation potboiler. It’s something far more evolved and interesting (and I say that with ardent adoration of the hagsploitation subgenre).
THE WITCHES stars Hollywood legend Joan Fontaine (Hitchcock’s REBECCA) as hard-nosed school teacher Gwen Mayfield who, after enduring a nightmarish experience in Africa (a berserk pre-credits sequence featuring monstrous witch doctors and tiki-men bursting into her classroom while Fontaine collapses, screaming), has endured a right and proper nervous breakdown. Once back on her feet, she accepts a job teaching the children of a tiny rural English Hamlet, an ideal position in a seemingly idyllic and peaceful community. However, almost from the moment she arrives, Gwen suspects something is “off”. The local minister turns out not to be a minister at all, despite wearing the collar for “comfort”; odd pagan talismans appear in tree trunks; some of the population seem to be in a kind of somnambulist state; and the town seems to be trying very hard to sabotage the budding romance between a pair of perfectly sweet and healthy teenagers. When people begin to die and Gwen starts to believe the whispers of witchcraft drifting through the village, she aims to do something about it, an act she might live to regret.