Does Witchcraft Exist Today?
1966 was an impressive year for Hammer Studios. In that year alone, they released classics such as Dracula, Prince Of Darkness, Plague Of The Zombies, The Reptile, Rasputin, The Mad Monk, One Million Years, B.C. and of course this comeback picture for actress Joan Fontaine (Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Rebecca), The Witches.
Facts of the Case
Based on the novel by Peter Curtis and with a screenplay by Hammer veteran Nigel Kneale (Quatermass 2, The Abominable Snowman) the movie tells the story of teacher Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine), who has just recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by an experience with African natives and their worshiping of voodoo. Taking a job in a quiet English hamlet as Head Mistress of the private school, Mayfield thinks her prayers have been answered. Giving credence to the saying, "be careful what you wish for," Mayfield soon finds that all is not well in her ideal looking town. In fact, there is a coven of witches lead by Mayfield's employer, Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh—The Ruling Class, Oliver Twist). Seems Bax has discovered an ancient 14th century text that tells of the transference of souls. It gives her the opportunity to live another life in the body of a village girl. The girl is one of Mayfield's students and she is desperate to save her. Pushed into having another mental breakdown from the stress of her situation, Mayfield awakes from a self-induced coma with no memory of her experiences after Africa. Slowly regaining her memory, Mayfield escapes her hospital prison and returns to the small town. Impressed by her return, Bax befriends Mayfield and asks her to join her. Using it as a way to get close to the sacrificial virgin, Linda (Ingrid Brett), Mayfield frantically tries to find a way to save the young girl. Will her efforts be enough or will Mayfield falter, witnessing the rebirth of evil for another generation?
As noted in the Opening Statement, 1966 was a prolific year for Hammer Studios, so it would be easy for a little movie like The Witches to be overlooked. This was one of Hammer's few efforts into the world of the Black Arts, and while it does possess a few sequences of note, The Witches should be considered middle tier Hammer. Things start out well enough, with the pre-title sequence managing to quicken the pulse, but unfortunately the rest of the film never equals its opening moments. The ending of the film is really a let down, showcasing one of the most embarrassing black mass orgy/dance numbers ever trapped on film. I dare almost anyone to watch and not smirk.
The film clocks in at a mere 91 minutes, but feels much longer. Everything is well shot, due in no small part to the efforts of Hammer's number one cinematographer Arthur Grant. Still, while the movie looks good, director Cyril Frankel never really manages to work up much tension. It is as if Frankel was attempting to direct a suspense film done by way of an English drawing room comedy, with the main problem being that the styles just don't mesh. There is certainly a great deal of intelligence in Nigel Kneale's screen adaptation, but it produces no immediacy and no tension. None of the characters are very sympathetic or warm, with the only real charm being shown by the film's villain, Kay Walsh.
I applaud Hammer for using two women as the movie's leads, especially considering the time frame of its production, but what good is doing something different if you are not going to give those characters anything interesting to do? Fontaine's character is pretty much your typical weak female and there is a certain degree of subtext presented that Walsh's coven leader is a lesbian with a definite interest in Fontaine. Lesbianism and horror was something that Hammer would deal with a few years later, but here the topic is washed over.
The film is certainly not helped by the fact that star Joan Fontaine seemed to be more interested in making sure her lighting and hair were right than she was in creating a memorable character. There is never a true feeling of panic or fear from Miss Fontaine, with it appearing as though she phoned in her performance. As goes your lead, so goes the rest of the film.
Veteran character actor Alec McCowen (The Age Of Innocence, Never Say Never Again) does show up in a supporting role, but his efforts are mostly wasted. Again, another case of the filmmakers not willing to go far enough because there is the strong implication that his character, who wears a priest's garb even though he is not ordained or trained, is actually gay.
The Witches had a lot going on, it's too bad that either the times or the filmmakers were unwilling to exploit it for its full dramatic potential.
Once more Anchor Bay steps to the plate and hits one out of the park. Presented in anamorphic widescreen while maintaining the film's original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the picture is nothing short of stunning. Colors are sharp and lifelike with flesh tones having a natural appearance. Nothing in the image appears washed out or muted and black detail also impresses. Detail and clarity are strong with there being precious few instances of pixel breakup or digital shimmer. If there is any downside, it is the occasional appearance of film grain. Nothing to really bring the overall score down, but given the age of the source material, it is to be somewhat expected.
Sound is a very clean sounding Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Dialogue is well mixed with Richard Rodney Bennett's excellent score, and there is a surprising level of warmth to the experience. To add points to the soundtrack's score, background problems are not to be heard. Listening carefully, I could make out no hiss or pops. All in all, another strong effort.
Extras include the usual Hammer promotional piece, which this time focuses on the bad women of Hammer Films and is simply called "Wicked Women." As is the case with the best of these pieces of fluff, it highlights several Hammer movies that I eagerly look forward to coming home on DVD. Moreover, anything that features Ingrid Pitt and Bette Davis in the same episode is okay with me. Of course, anything with Ingrid Pitt, well, let me just leave it there and hope that The Vampire Lovers is on the way sometime soon.
As always, Anchor Bay has included the film's trailer, in this case it is the renamed UK version, as well as a pair of television spots that highlight this movie and Prehistoric Women.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, I suppose I covered most of my problems with the movie in the previous section so that leaves me with my usual Anchor Bay gripe. Once again we are given a disc with no close captioning, no subtitles, and no alternate language tracks. I had hoped with the presence of close captioning on such recent releases as Supergirl, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn and Repo Man, we saw the beginning of across the board support from Anchor Bay. Apparently that is not the case. I have said it before and I will say it again, Anchor Bay is one of my favorite DVD companies out there, but the only thing holding them back from being a complete company is support for these very basic features. Given all the advances with compression, it would seem to be a simple thing to do. I hate sounding like a broken record, but as long as it continues, I will continue to call attention to it.
The Witches is far from Hammer Studio's finest moment. As such this movie is only for hard-core Hammer addicts, fans of witchcraft movies or viewers of high camp. Novice Hammer watchers are best left to other, better made films from the Studio That Dripped Blood. If you are one of those hard-core Hammer fan, rest assured, Anchor Bay has done another spectacular job on both picture and sound. Also it is nice to have an episode of "World Of Hammer" that has not been recycled from previous releases.
Anchor Bay is convicted of not including basic functions on their discs so the hearing impaired may enjoy their product. Sentence is for executives at Anchor Bay to wear earplugs and try and sit through their entire catalogue of movies. Sentence can be commuted with regular inclusion of said feature.
That is all I have. This case is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• United Kingdom Theatrical Trailer
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