The Witches Blu-ray/DVD

Monday, 07 October 2013 09:13 Written by 

The Witches - out as dual format DVD and Blu-ray releaseOriginally released in 1966, “The Witches” is a portrait of a disarmingly quaint ‘Little England’ for its first couple of reels, before revealing its credentials as a legitimate entry into the Hammer horror film canon. Based on the novel “The Devil’s Own” by Peter Curtis, you know things are going to take a very dark turn when you see its screenplay came from the pen of Nigel Kneale, the creator of “Quatermass”. And here it comes, digitally restored on a dual Blu-ray/DVD release.

The pre-credit sequence sees our protagonist Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), an English schoolteacher, working as a missionary in Africa. The cliffhanger leaves her being attacked by a tribe of local witch doctors (look out for a young Rudolph Walker as Mark, one of her assistants). All we know for sure is she has been exposed to the occult, but it is only later in the movie that we find out exactly how deeply she has been left traumatised.

Post-credits, Gwen takes a position at a rural school within the British countryside. It’s your typical biscuit-tin-top view of village life in the 1960s, or indeed any point in the 20th Century. Everyone says ‘hello’ to everyone else when passing on the country lanes, and is very welcoming to her role as head teacher.

Her house is delightful, and she has her own housekeeper in Valerie Creek (Michelle Dotrice), who also works in the local store and helps out at the school. There is also a chubby black cat who invites itself in, and Gwen decides to adopt it.

She is given the teaching job by someone she thinks is a priest, Alan Bax (Alec McCowen – Q in “Never Say Never Again”), but at best he’s a lapsed ‘man of the cloth’. She is soon introduced to Alan’s wife, renowned author Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), who Gwen notes she regularly reads her features in the Sunday supplements. There’s something very suspicious about Alan’s behaviour, but Gwen cannot put her finger on what precisely is the problem.

Gwen takes an interest in what appears to be a couple of puppy-lovers in her class – fourteen-year-old Linda Rigg (Ingrid Brett) and boy genius Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens). Linda’s guardian, Granny Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies) dominates her life with an iron fist, forbidding Linda to keep seeing Ronnie, and bends Linda to her will by any means necessary. Linda is always playing with a female doll, and it is a terrible portent of things to come when Ronnie buys her a male doll to match. Granny Rigg also turns out to be the real owner of the black cat, who she quietly instructs to follow Gwen, after she comes by to check on Linda.

Gwen sees there is trouble ahead, but even so carries out intelligence tests on Ronnie. She shares her very positive findings with his parents (John Collin and Carmel McSharry). Alan Bax even offers to pay for Ronnie to go to a boarding school, which can help him make the best of his talents. Gwen offers the option that she will give Ronnie personal tuition, which the parents decides would be the best, as Mr Dowsett is not keen on Ronnie leaving the village.

And from this meticulous set-up, the story begins to gain momentum, with people beginning to die in mysterious circumstances, or driven into comas. There is one scene which time has not been kind to, as Gwen is stampeded by a herd of sheep, apparently due to German Shepherds’ Dodo and Badger behaving very out of character, and causing the situation.

Also regrettably, the film’s finale is far too well-lit, not helping to build up the suspense and horror. It’s very colourful, in a 1960s Steed and Mrs Peel The Avengers sort-of way, but this isn’t really the mood that director Cyril Frankel should have been going for. Perhaps there was some concern that they needed to disarm the psychological horror of this ‘X-rated’ movie, although it says something that today’s certifiers only deem it requires a ‘12’ certificate.

There are some eyebrow-raising cameos within the movie, including Leonard ‘Rising Damp’ Rossiter as Doctor Wallis, John Barrett (Jed Pickersgill in Not On Your Nellie) as Mr Glass, and Bryan Marshall (Alan Glenn in Warship) as villager Tom.

Star Joan Fontaine counts this as her last major big screen role. In a career that began in 1935, by 1940 she had received her first Academy Award nomination for “Rebecca”, and would win an Oscar for the role of Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth in “Suspicion” in 1941. With the part of Tessa Sanger in 1943’s “The Constant Nymph” she was once again nominated for an Oscar. Television had begun to filter into her career, with roles in One Step Beyond (1960), Checkmate (1961), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963), and Wagon Train (1963). Later, she guested on Cannon (1975), Ryan’s Hope (1980), The Love Boat (1981), Bare Essence (1983) and Hotel (1986). Her final role was as Queen Ludmilla in the TV movie “Good King Wenceslas” in 1994.

For those concerned about the ‘under-age’ Linda, the actress playing her was Ingrid Brett, now known as Ingrid Boulting. A former ballet dancer and model, she was actually 19 years old at the time of the release of “The Witches”, and had made her acting debut, uncredited, as a Schoolgirl in the same year’s “The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery”. Her biggest role was ten years’ later in “The Last Tycoon” opposite Robert de Niro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Donald Pleasance and Ray Milland. After this film, she moved to Ojai, California, to raise a child and open a yoga and painting studio. Her TV roles included Dixon of Dock Green (1967), Journey to the Unknown (1969), The New Mike Hammer (1984) and The Twilight Zone (1985). After a 21 year break, she returned to the big screen in 2006’s “Conversations with God”, based on Neale Donald Walsch’s international bestseller.

All in all, “The Witches” has the classic hallmarks of a Nigel Kneale script – chimes that suggest things are not quite right, gradually ramping up the feeling of dread and foreboding. You are never quite sure who is going to be good or evil in the plot, and you find out just enough about the characters who are killed off to actually care about their fates. The restoration, even on the DVD preview copy, can be seen to be top drawer, albeit the opening couple of minutes do give cause for concern, as they look just a little bit worn. Thankfully, this is just a temporary aberration.

There’s just the one extra on this release, a new documentary from the renowned Marcus Hearn – “Hammer Glamour”. This is a 42 minute catalogue of the top line Hammer Films female stars, including interviews with Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, Madeline Smith, Vera Day and former Magpie host Jenny Hanley. It’s a delightfully upbeat collection of interviews, tempered with many a tale of having to rail against requests, then demands, for some degree of nudity in their performances. Against this backdrop, the rest of the time you can fully appreciated the fun that was had in the production of these movies.

You do also get English Hard-Of-Hearing subtitles on the movie as an option.

The new restoration of “The Witches” will premiere at the 54th London Film Festival on 11 October 2013, with a repeat performance on 16 October 2013. It will be out on DVD/Blu-ray double play format on 21 October 2013, with a ‘12’ certificate, a running time of 90 minutes approx, and a RRP of £22.99, or get it for less at


Last modified on Friday, 18 October 2013 12:14

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