Posts Tagged ‘The Witches’

Nigel Kneale’s reputation these days is basically as the great wordsmith, a bit of a prophet of doom (and, occasionally, one who was bang on the money). When it comes to British television he is mentioned in the same breath as people like Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale, a creator of the first rank. But when you look at Kneale’s film work his resume is somewhat less impressive: one undeniably brilliant script for Quatermass and the Pit, based – of course – on his own screenplay, and a large number of adaptations of things by other people, from various genres. I remember sitting down to watch Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer a few years ago and being startled to see Kneale credited as the screenwriter, so strongly did I associate him with the horror and SF genres.

Kneale seems to have been very much working as a gun for hire when it came to another movie for Hammer, 1966’s The Witches, directed by Cyril Frankel. This is a very atypical Hammer horror in all sorts of ways, not least in that it was brought to the company as a personal project by its star, Joan Fontaine. An Oscar-winner in her youth, by the mid 60s Fontaine had hit the sticky patch encountered by many actresses of a certain age (how times have, er, not changed) and saw this as a good vehicle for her talents.


Fontaine plays Gwen, a schoolmistress recovering after the trauma of being on the wrong end of a native uprising somewhere in Africa (quite what happened is left to the imagination of the viewer). Trying to rebuild her life, she accepts a job as the head teacher of the local school in Heddaway, an idyllic village in the English countryside. Everyone is very welcoming, but it isn’t too long before she starts to sense that some very odd things are afoot. The man purporting to be the local priest (Alec McCowan) is not ordained, but a fantasist in a dog collar – there isn’t even a village church. And there are signs that someone in the area is up to a sneaky spot of black magic…

In an age when every major film is precision-made to have the widest possible audience – I give you, for example, A Good Day to Die Hard and nu-Hammer film The Woman in Black, both of which were re-edited in the UK to get a 12 rather than a 15 certification – The Witches is a reminder of a vanished, peculiar world. The initial script was given an A rating – the equivalent of a 15 today, I suppose – and Hammer, appropriately, reacted with horror. Back in the 60s horror movies didn’t make money unless they were X-rated, and so The Witches was amended to achieve a more restrictive certification. It’s all quite bemusing from a modern viewpoint as – other than the subject matter and a dab of Kensington Gore – there’s not much here to shock or disturb, and indeed the DVD release is rated 12.

Then again, as the director put it, The Witches is ‘a more sensitive and serious film than [Hammer’s] usual horror, blood, and thunder‘ and it doesn’t really look or feel like a genuine Hammer horror. There are none of the usual suspects amongst the main cast – no Lee, Cushing, Keir, Shelley, Morell, and so on – although perennial Hammer supporting artist Duncan Lamont does make an appearance. It’s not directed by one of the big Hammer names, though Frankel is competent enough, and the score isn’t by James Bernard (Richard Rodney Bennett’s percussive music is rather good, though, and shows up as part of the linking material on the Ultimate Hammer box set). Perhaps it’s best not to judge The Witches by the standards of other Hammer horrors at all.

Even then, as a film in its own right, The Witches feels curiously well-mannered and underpowered. In some ways the basic plot inevitably recalls that of The Wicker Man, in that it concerns a well-meaning outsider thrust into a close-knit community and stumbling upon a terrible plot, but it lacks that film’s intellectual steel and lethal conviction. This isn’t to say that Joan Fontaine gives a poor performance – far from it – but everything’s just a bit too obvious and straightforward. This could have been a rather effective exercise in paranoia – is Gwen really seeing witchcraft at work, or have her experiences in Africa left her unbalanced and prone to flights of fantasy? – but this aspect of the story isn’t really explored.

Perhaps the problems with The Witches partly stem from the script and the realisation pulling in opposite directions. Nigel Kneale (showing his usual reverence for someone else’s source material) apparently decided that the idea of present-day witchcraft was ‘risible’ and wrote the screenplay as a black comedy, with the coven themselves as delusional cranks, their ‘magic’ only working through the credulity of the villagers around them. It’s telling that in the finished film, the question of whether black magic is objectively real, or only exists in the minds of its practitioners and victims, is left completely open.

However, for whatever reason, the actual film is mostly played completely straight, with only the faintest signs of Kneale’s humour making it onto the screen (mostly through the performance of Kay Walsh as the leader of the coven). The movie is trying to be subtle and atmospheric, the script is trying to be funny, and nobody is trying to give the film any kind of fire in its belly or simple raw energy. There’s the odd unsettling moment, but it never comes anywhere close being genuinely shocking or scary. The result is a polite and restrained film with some good performances, but with nothing like the colour or charisma of any other Hammer film from this period.

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