The Witches (1966)

a.k.a. - The Devil's Own

Joan Fontaine stars in a thriller styled horror film from Hammer Films. Optimum UK R2 DVD

The Film

Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) was working as a teacher in a small school in Africa when she is forced out by superstitious locals. Back in England she gets a job of headmistress at a small rural school, owned by the wealthy local family of Alan and Stephanie Bax. Things in the town are not quite as quiet as they seem and Gwen becomes suspicious of the behavior of several of the children. After a boy falls into a coma, she finds a doll stuck with pins and begins to worry that witchcraft might be practiced somewhere in the village...

Actress Joan Fontaine had been a big name in the 1940s, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's iconic Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but by the 1960s she was finding roles hard to come by. She found work in the theatre, but wanting another shot at cinema, she decided to take on a project herself and brought the rights to the novel The Devil's Own by writer Norah Lofts. She took it to the American production company Seven Arts who were working with Hammer at the time and they arranged for it to be brought to the screen. Curiously, Nigel Kneale was chosen to adapt the book, being a well regarded sci-fi writer but without any real background in traditional horror he seems like an odd choice and as a result this movie never really works as a horror film. Still, he provides a solid script that works particularly well as a thriller for the first hour - ratcheting up the tension and mystery around the village and its inhabitants with some strong characterisation and a realistic atmosphere, as tough you were watching scenes from an ongoing television series. Pacing is slow but never drags during these sequences.

The modern day setting similarly seems like a rather odd choice, since Hammer's expertise was in the Victorian era and with lots of motorcars available it means that the village lacks the isolated, claustrophobic feel of many similar and more effective films. One scene during the opening does strike as particularly odd - Gwen is being interviewed by Alan for the role as headteacher and when asked about her time in Africa seems to show some disturbing mental instability - something that would make her a rather odd choice for a very responsible position - but Alan completely ignores it. Things do not run so smoothly after the denoument either - a half hearted attempt to equate witchcraft to the power of the mind and the frankly stupid idea of including an unwilling Gwen in the ceremony, combine with a not unexpected Deus ex Machina ending to give the climax a completely unimpressive feel.

Director Cyril Frankel had previously worked on Hammer's highly controversial child-abuse tale Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960) and he provides solid if uninspired direction here. The climactic ritual is quite interestingly presented with a raw and animalistic feel, a long way from the carefully orchestrated rituals of Dennis Wheatley's Devil Rides Out (1968) that Hammer filmed two years later. Unfortunately, the rituals here seem to largely consist of bizarre dancing as the members pretend to be animals, which although proving the leader's complete control over the group, does make the scenes unintentionally amusing and daft. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett provides a solid soundtrack that is particularly well used in the opening hour to increase the tension.

Joan Fontaine obviously takes the lead role here and gives a solid performance in a part she had been preparing for, for over four years. No familiar Hammer faces are present in the cast, but the acting is generally strong.

The Witches is often ranked as one of Hammer's lesser films and has disappointed many viewers expecting an all out witchcraft themed horror in the vien of The Devil Rides Out or Blood on Satan's Claw (1971). Instead the witchcraft provides a thoroughly disappointing climax to what was a well made little thriller that had potential to become a very good film had it completely eshewed the supernatural, or indeed the potential to make an effective little horror film along the lines of Plague of the Zombies (1966) or even The Wicker Man (1973) had the writer been more interested in the material. Of interest to Hammer fans, who should enjoy this, provided they don't hope for any real horror.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Joan Fontaine - a British actress who made a name in Hollywood, starring in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940)
Directed by anyone interesting? Cyril Frankel - a little known British director who had previously worked for Hammer on their controversial Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1961) and also directed the Edgar Wallace thriller Trygon Factor (1966).
Any gore or violence ? None.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Is it scary? No, it never really tries to be.
Who is it for? Probably of interest to Hammer fans, but likely to disappoint anyone hoping for horror.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is particularly strong with very good detail and colour, some slight scratches in a couple of places. One scene is notably more blurred but is only short and is a dialogue scene so nothing is missed.
Audio English original mono which sounds fine.
Subtitles None.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Original theatrical trailer.
Availability Available as a single disc or in the Ultimate Hammer boxset.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Other regions? Available on R1 DVD from Anchor Bay as a single disc or double-disc set, with Slave Girls - out-of-print but still available. Also released in Germany (as The Witches with German and English audio and German subtitles) and Spain (as Las Brujas with Spanish and English audio and Spanish and Portuguese subtitles). All three other releases include an the "Wicked Women" episode of the worthless World of Hammer television series.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. The print used is English langauge.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 4th January 2009
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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