London Film Festival: The Witches

In the first of today’s two LFF updates, Ricky Young reflects on a handsome restoration of an ugly film 

The Witches

Today sees the LFF unveiling of the restored version of overlooked Hammer potboiler The Witches. Directed by Cyril Frankel and written by Nigel Kneale, it stars Hitchcock Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine in what would turn out to be her last cinematic role.

The Witches rarely gets much of a mention when discussing Hammer’s output – none of the big Hammer names or stars are involved – and despite the admittedly glorious-looking restoration, it’s not hard to see why. Even at their tackiest, the Hammer greats always had a spark of audience-pleasing oomph at their core. The Witches’ most exciting moment features six seconds of runaway livestock. Make of that what you will.

She's actually playing 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You' by Michael Jackson
Budget cuts required Joan to perform her own dramatic organ stings when frightened.

Joan stars as Gwen Mayfield, a schoolteacher, recently returned from Africa after an occult-based breakdown. (Basically, she got a fright from a big mask.) Hired by kindly vicar Alec McCowen, she takes a position as headmistress in an idyllic country village, where it’s not long before things are Clearly Not What They Seem.

For starters, McCowen isn’t actually a vicar, or kindly, and just stands about the place, distractedly burbling about how he likes to keep an unofficial hand in matters spiritual, because of – you know – things.

We meet his journalist sister too, a proto-Thatcher played by Kay Walsh (the film’s brightest spot) who encourages Joan to get involved in village life and to dismiss any undertones of strangeness she may detect as both stuff and nonsense.

The first half of The Witches is a decent mystery-thriller, with the clues to the village goings-on being laid out for the viewer in a brisk and efficient manner (i.e. what you would expect from Kneale, although he was reported to be unhappy with the way his initially satirical script was brought to the screen), but then we hit a dead-stop when Joan spends a bit of time in a loony-bin run by Leonard Rossiter, and the film never recovers.

But – not before we lap from a big bucket of human shit!
Film, I order you to – NEVER RECOVER!

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the film’s title may be an indication of the menace Joan has uncovered, and when she faces down the duplicitous Walsh to try and get some answers, we rush moderately incoherently towards the film’s, ahem, climax – an occult orgy in the ruins of a church!

Those hoping for a bit of sub-Dennis Wheatley horns-and-horny action will be disappointed. The lumpy, unattractive villagers manage to keep their specially-donned rags on throughout, and the entire sequence comes off as less of a demon-fuelled sexual free-for-all and more of a bunch of mature drama students re-enacting the Rainbow Rhythms scenes from Peep Show. Strangely, however, one of the rituals appears to be rapturous and frantic lapping from a big bucket of human shit, which in fairness may have been what you did for fun in the country in 1966 – somebody get Dominic Sandbrook on the case; he’ll know for sure.

Even generously painting it as a thematic precursor to the more disturbing and memorable ruined-church-orgy action in 1971’s Blood On Satan’s Claw would be a stretch. Michelle Dotrice turns up at both of them, mind you, which could go some way to explaining the pained expression on Michael Crawford’s face for most of the seventies.

The Witches starts off brightly, but ends up being damn hard work. There’s a reason films sometimes get forgotten, and curio value aside, this is very much minor-league Hammer.

The Witches is available on DVD/Blu-ray double-play on Oct 21st.

Ricky is on The Tweeter.

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