(director: Cyril Frankel; screenwriters: Nigel Kneale/from the novel by Peter Curtis; cinematographer: Arthur Grant; editor: James Needs; music: Richard Rodney Bennett; cast: Joan Fontaine (Gwen Mayfield), Kay Walsh (Stephanie Bax), Alec McCowen (Alan Bax), Ann Bell (Sally Benson), Ingrid Brett (Linda Rigg), John Collin (Mr. Dowsett), Michele Dotrice (Valerie Creek), Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (Granny Rigg), Duncan Lamont (Bob Curd), Leonard Rossiter (Dr. Wallis), Martin Stephens (Ronnie Dowsett), Carmel McSharry (Mrs. Dowsett); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Anthony Nelson Keys; Warner Brothers/Hammer Films; 1966)

“A conventional tale about witchcraft.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cyril Frankel directs a conventional tale about witchcraft. Its failure to resonate with chills or suspense drowns out its straightforward supernatural tale with too much of a refined story. This box office bomb was the last film Joan Fontaine, the winner of the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” appeared in. Joan is the sister of Olivia De Haviland. The film rights to Peter Curtis’ novel The Devil’s Own were purchased by Joan, who could get only Hammer Films to make it. Contrary to the way most view it as a melodramatic horror film, Joan views it as more of a detective story. Screenwriter Nigel Kneale was best known as the author of the Quartermass teleseries in England, but delivers a weak script for The Witches. The film’s best feature was in the acting, as Joan Fontaine conducted herself well and co-star Kay Walsh stole the show as the witch who was on an arrogant mission to make the world a better place.

The film opens before the credits, as African missionary school teacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) is attacked in her school by voodoo practitioners who want her to leave their village. Gwen is traumatized by that incident to return to England and recover from her nervous breakdown. Answering an ad in the newspaper after a few years of getting it together again, Gwen is hired by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) to be headmistress of a country private school that is run by Alan and his journalist sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh). The wealthy but kinky Alan appears dressed as a priest and in his home he arranges his private study as a church with taped organ music, but it turns out he’s not a minister. He wanted to be one, but was rejected.

Gwen’s wish to lead a quiet life in the small village is broken when she takes a deep interest in two of her students experiencing rejection by the locals, Linda Rigg and Ronnie Dowsett. They are sweethearts but Linda’s granny (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) doesn’t like the boy for her nearly 15-year-old physically well-endowed charge. Soon a headless doll with pins in it is found on a tree by Gwen, and Ronnie is carted off to the hospital in a coma. Gwen suspects Granny Riggs of practicing witchcraft, but can’t prove it. Ronnie’s mom subsequently makes a devil’s bargain with Granny Riggs to have the curse removed and moves with her son back to her Welsh birthplace, but Mr. Dowsett remains because he lived all his life in the village. When Gwen tells the drunk gardener she suspects Granny Riggs of witchcraft, he goes to see her late at night. The next morning he’s found dead, and when Gwen investigates for clues at the creek where he was found she finds many different footprints and suspects murder by a coven. But while standing there a flock of Stephanie’s sheep stampede across that path and wipe out all the footprints. When questioned by the police, Gwen mentions she’ll give a statement at the inquest.

Back in her room, Gwen again experiences a voodoo attack and loses her memory. She’s taken to a nursing home in a coma and the same village doctor treats her there for a nervous breakdown. By accident, Gwen recovers her memory when a little girl visiting a patient shows up with a doll. Before Gwen is transferred to another treatment center in Cornwall, she escapes but ends up hitching a ride with the village butcher Mr. Curd who returns her to the village.

Stephanie feels it’s safe to reveal herself as the town’s head witch, as she believes Gwen is so vulnerable that no one will believe her. She’s convinced that Gwen is really one of them and thereby initiates her into the coven, and hopes to use her intellect in a ritual sacrifice of the virgin Linda. It’s Stephanie’s belief that because of her great intelligence and usefulness to humanity, she deserves to live another lifetime in order to give her time to accomplish what she’s working on. By stealing the lower-class Linda’s soul in a ritual sacrifice, she believes the Devil will allow her to live out the girl’s otherwise useless life–which should give her at least 40 more years. The idealistic schoolteacher uses her knowledge of voodoo to thwart Stephanie at the time of the campy ritual, as she kills the demon by shedding her own blood before she can sacrifice the victim who was placed in a trance.

The locals who joined the coven are shown to be merely dolts and are not to be blamed for their ignorant actions. Stephanie takes the full rap for it as being a vehicle of evil. Alan is let off the hook as merely a psychologically troubled man with a religious obsession, but not necessarily an evil man. The do-gooder, meddling teacher, Gwen, is viewed as the self-sacrificing woman who restores order by putting an end to witchcraft in that once again peaceful English village. The story goes along with the typical genre racist and sexist stereotypes of the times, with blacks, women and children as the deficient individuals who most easily succumb to the dark forces.

The Witches Poster

REVIEWED ON 10/28/2003 GRADE: C+