Continuing our Hammer retrospective month with a look at their uncharacteristic and underrated study of rural occultism.
The Witches is the arguably most atypical of all Hammer’s horror films, at least those made when the company was at its popular peak. Made at the peak of the company’s success in 1966, it doesn’t really fit with any of the familiar Hammer trends – it’s not a gothic piece, a psycho imitator, an epic fantasy, a swashbuckler or anything else that Hammer was doing at the time. What’s more, other than the production crew, it doesn’t really feature any familiar Hammer names – certainly not in the cast. While both director Cyril Frankel and screenwriter Nigel Kneale had both worked with the company before, neither were what you would consider to be Hammer regulars. In fact, while the notoriously prickly Kneale been responsible for the launch of Hammer as ‘the horror producers’ thanks to their adaptations of his BBC Quatermass serials, he had been very dismissive of the film versions and for some years later would be the sticking point in them getting home video releases. It’s odd, therefore, to see him adapting someone else’s work for the company. even if the actual material is not that far removed from his personal obsessions. While often seen as a science fiction writer – thanks again to the cultural clout of Quatermass – Kneale was often drawn to the occult and what we would now call ‘folk horror’. His TV movie The Stone Tape, the lesser-known Murrain, the mid-Seventies TV series Beasts and even his aborted work on Halloween III – Season of the Witch all speak of a fascination with witchcraft, old religions and the dark mysteries of rural communities. Even Quatermass and the Pit is as much an exploration of British mythology and occultism as it is a science fiction piece. All that considered, The Witches seems less of an outlier and more exactly the sort of film you would expect him to be involved in.
You might have thought that witchcraft, black magic and Satanism would be right up Hammer’s street, but the British censors in the 1960s were a touch nervous about such subjects and while indie producers ventured gingerly into the area with films like Naked Evil, Witchcraft, Night of the Eagle and Night of the Demon, Hammer seemed more reluctant. At heart, despite their reputation for Kensington Gore and heaving bosoms, Hammer was quite a conservative production house – they knew not to rock the boat and took on board the concerns of the BBFC wholeheartedly, even cancelling film productions entirely when the censor expressed their disapproval with the screenplay. In any case, their gothic horrors were doing very nicely, thank you. It was, presumably, the release of the aforementioned films and other international productions that convinced them to dip a toe into the water with this atypical film before going all-out into the Satanic with The Devil Rides Out.
Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a schoolteacher who has returned to England after working as a missionary in Africa, where things ended rather badly with local witchdoctors (as seen in the opening scenes). She takes a job running a small village school – despite giving one of the worst interviews imaginable – and starts to settle into the local life. But slowly, she begins to notice odd things. While the fact that her employer pretends to be a vicar can be put down to eccentricity (though the fact that the local church is in ruins and hasn’t been replaced is an early hint that all is not right here), but stories of child cruelty, mysterious illnesses and sudden deaths all start to an uncomfortable truth – someone in the village is practising witchcraft. But to what end? And just how many of the villagers are involved?
The Witches is doomed to be forever considered a minor Hammer film, but it’s actually one of their more interesting mid-Sixties productions, one that steps outside the period comfort zone (which is presumably the reason for it being so roundly dismissed by many fans). Fontaine gives an impressive performance, managing to be highly strung without becoming hysterical as the sense of conspiracy slowly but relentlessly increases. When she has a breakdown and loses her memory, the film takes an interesting turn – from this point on, it never quite goes in the direction you might expect. Kneale’s screenplay – based on a novel by Peter Curtis – thankfully avoids the clichés of the paranoid thriller for the most part and instead invents a few interesting twists as Miss Mayfield’s suspicions grow. She, like the viewer, is kept guessing by a series of often contradictory events and behaviours, and it’s only in the final act that everything starts to come together.
The occult conspiracy movie is an established trope these days – a couple of years after this film was made, Rosemary’s Baby took the same creeping sense of paranoia and gaslighting into a more urban environment and set the scene for numerous variations on the theme. Of course, this wasn’t the first film to feature an outsider entering a closed community where the old religions (be it witchcraft, black magic, Satanism or some fudged combination of the lot) hold sway. City of the Dead – one of the first of the British films to explore the collision of the modern world and ancient beliefs – did a pretty good job with the theme in 1960 and others – most notably Night of the Eagle – also pitted the educated, secular modernist against the Old Gods. It is a theme that runs throughout a lot of British horror – the BBC play Robin Redbreast also explores similar themes and Hammer themselves would return to it at the start of the company’s 21st-century revival with Wake Wood. There’s an interesting theme that runs through these movies where the protagonist is often from the academic world – the university lecturer, the teacher, the student – who is dismissive of superstition and outdated beliefs and then has their arrogance and disbelief punctured. The Witches fudges the theme slightly as Miss Mayfield is already fragile – her sense of reality and dismissal of old religions has already been shattered in the film’s opening prologue.
The film that The Witches perhaps most closely resembles in many ways is The Wicker Man. Like that film, it features an outsider slowly discovering that a small, isolated community has returned to a belief system older than Christianity under the influence of an authority figure, and trying to save a young girl from being sacrificed. The film lacks the subversive subtlety of Robin Hardy’s film – there’s no suggestion here that the occult activities of the villagers are anything less than evil or that Miss Mayfield is an unsympathetic busybody interfering in the beliefs of others – but the similarities are interesting, nonetheless. Like The Wicker Man, The Witches wraps its horrors in a brightly lit package. Frankel avoids dark shadows and all-too-obvious jump scares and instead allows the horror to develop in bright sunshine and picturesque locations.
Frankel is a bit of an odd choice as director. He’s previously helmed Hammer’s controversial child molester drama Never Take Sweets from a Stranger but was essentially a director for hire who had made everything from dramas to comedies like On The Fiddle, and after this would mostly work directing episodes of TV shows like Gideon’s Way, The Baron, The Champions, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and others. A safe pair of hands rather than a visionary then, but clearly someone with enough imagination to make this film effectively tense and nervous. We can, in fairness, give Kneale the lion’s share of the credit for building up the unease, but Frankel’s direction mixes mundane reality with visual hints of things not being quite right in an effective manner. It’s a pity that he didn’t get to make more horror films.
The film’s climatic occult ritual runs a fine line between weirdly creepy and high camp, as the possessed villagers, dressed in rags, gyrate and gurn in what is a very, very weird pseudo orgy. It’s in stark contrast to the slow burn, sober chills that have preceded it and at times it certain tips over into being laughable. But there’s a strange demented intensity to these scenes that just about holds them together, with the suggestion of sexual abandon taking the place of a more explicit ritual. They are certainly unlike anything else you will have seen in a Hammer film, and more unsettling and genuinely frenzied and pagan than the rather staid Satanic rituals at the end of The Devil Rides Out just two years later.
Admittedly, The Witches does take some time to get going. While the opening scene sticks with the Hammer tradition of throwing a shock right at the start, the film itself takes things rather steadily – perhaps too steadily for some viewers. But nothing seems particularly superfluous – there’s no suggestion that the film is padded, and the deliberate pace is as much a part of the building sense of unease as anything. This is a slow burn rather than simply slow and the paranoia is drip-fed into the narrative so that our suspicions are aroused just as Miss Mayfield’s are. Well, to a point. This is, after all, a Hammer film called The Witches – so we probably have a good idea that something is going to be amiss from the start. If there is a problem with horror movies that start to unravel reality slowly, it’s that we are already primed to expect the untoward to happen by virtue of the fact that we are, after all, watching a horror film. it’s the unavoidable, occupational hazard of the genre that we know bad things are going to happen and the pleasures come in seeing just what, how and why they do. Critics have called The Witches slow and uninvolving, but I feel the film successfully reveals its secrets to us in a way that feels both natural and disturbing.
This doesn’t feel very much like a Hammer film and that might well throw some viewers – it certainly did me when I saw the film on TV many years ago, to the point that I’d quite forgotten even seeing it until I watched it again recently. If you come at it with expectations based on the Hammer films of the period – The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies – you might well be disappointed because it isn’t one of those films at all. Rather, it’s one of those odd Hammer Horrors of the era that sat outside the company’s mainstream and now feels all the more interesting and original because of it. Hammer purists might not care for this film, but folk horror enthusiasts and fans of paranoid genre cinema will find much to enjoy here.
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