The Witches (1966) [31 Days of Hammer Horror Review]

Jules picks up where he left off in October by running through some of the choice horror offerings from the fantastic Hammer back catalogue.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of Hammer” by CLICKING HERE.

Released: 1966
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Alec McCowen, Kay Walsh
Director: Cyril Frankel

While most definitely a Hammer horror, there’s not really that much you could describe as horrific going on in The Witches.

A modern-day folk horror with elements of voodoo, black magic and a healthy dose of paranoia thrown in for good measure, all the elements are there for what could have been a properly chilling little story. Sadly, any tension or creeping unease is completely undone with a truly jaw-dropping (and not in a good way) final act.

Gwen Mayfield, an English schoolteacher suffers a nervous breakdown after her school in Africa is besieged during an uprising led by local voodoo witch doctors. Back in England and seemingly recovered, she is hired to be the new Head Teacher at a small private school on the village of Heddaby, ran by the Reverend Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) and his sister, renowned journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh).

Still mentally fragile from her ordeal, Gwen starts to suspect evidence of witchcraft, but is it all in her head or is the sleepy village actually harbouring a witch?

There’s nearly a really enjoyable, if painfully slight film in here. Fontaine totally convinces as the heroine on the verge of another breakdown and the scenes of her waking up in a nursing home (ran by the great Leonard Rossiter no less!) after a full year away from the village have a real sense of panic and dread about them.

The idea of the whole village being in on it is subtly layered at a nicely slow pace, only becoming properly overt with a lovely piece of foreshadowing as Gwen first comes to the realisation that there may be witchcraft afoot. Standing at the edge of the pond where a local mysteriously “drowned”, the penny drops just as half the village appear to surround her. It’s lovely stuff and beautifully done.

Its all building up to a great, if mannered crescendo, only for the wheels to fall off right at the end. The final black mass scene, where the virginal 14-year-old is to be sacrificed to extend the life of the head witch should be horrific, or even atmospheric at least. Instead, for some insane reason, director Cyril Frankel decided to populate it with a cast of jazz-handed dancers, all doing ludicrous synchronised moments around the lead characters. It’s brightly lit, it’s not remotely scary and worst of all, it’s very, very silly. Add in a pointless coda back in the school to end on a supposedly funny moment and you have a decent film completely hamstrung by an awful final 20 minutes.

It could have been so much more.

Rating: 2/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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