Also known as The Devil’s Own, which was the title of the book this film was based on.
The Witches is a fairly obscure and peculiar little mid-60s film from the British Hammer Studio. The screenplay was written by Nigel Kneale, but it’s not his original material. It stars an actress one doesn’t normally associate with horror films: Joan Fontaine. Yes, that Joan Fontaine, of Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. The great actresses of her generation did dabble in horror during this period, late in their careers, and this is her turn. IMDB has a story that she bought the rights to the book so she could star in the movie version, then retired when it flopped. I’ve no idea how much of that’s true.
There’s one other very peculiar peculiarity about this film, but I’ll get to that later.
Joan plays Gwen Mayfield, a missionary / teacher. We meet her in the opening scenes in an unnamed African country; the local witch-doctor has turned his tribe against the missionaries, and the school where Gwen teaches is under attack. Gwen is packing up the school to make her escape, but she doesn’t get out in time. A group of men in enormous decorated masks come into the school, and the witch-doctor does something undefined but horrible to her. That he’d “eat your soul” is what the native men who worked for Gwen were afraid of, and she pooh-poohed that idea as nonsense only minutes before.
A year or so later, after recovering from a nervous breakdown following this incident, Gwen is back in England. She takes up a job teaching at the small and remote village of Heddaby, and finds that she hasn’t gotten away from witchcraft after all.
The man who interviews her and invites her to take this job appears to be the village parson. His name is Alex Bax (Alec McCowan), and the school is a very small private one that his family founded and continues to endow.
Not only is Gwen provided with a charming furnished house, but with a maid and gardener, and a black cat who’s there to greet her as soon as she moves in. Believing the cat to be a stray, Gwen’s happy to it take in.
Gwen soon learns that there’s no church in Heddaby and no rectory. Alex isn’t the vicar. So why does he wear a dogcollar? He also plays tape-recorded organ music very loudly in his study in the old manor house he shares with his dominating elder sister. Where Alex is meek and subdued, Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh) is a forceful personality, an intellectual lady who writes semi-scholarly articles for the Sunday newspapers.
Alex’s wish to dress as a clergyman is “all perfectly harmless,” Stephanie reassures Gwen when she drops by for her first visit.
Alex shows Gwen the ruins of the old village church, which is next to his house. The church was destroyed 200 years ago and never rebuilt or replaced; Gwen guesses that a storm did the damage, but Alex doesn’t confirm this or give her another explanation. He explains to her that he doesn’t try to officiate at religious ceremonies or anything, but he did once try to become an ordained priest and didn’t make the grade. He just likes wearing the collar occasionally.
The village school has 2 teachers. The other teacher is responsible for the class made up of young children; Gwen has the teenagers. Most of them aren’t important to the story, but one boy and girl, Ronnie and Linda,* are shyly courting each other. The teachers think it’s sweet, but others in the village don’t approve. The boy’s father has a reputation as a layabout, and Linda is meant for better things.
When Linda is suddenly absent from school one day, Gwen finds a badly spelled note on her desk that hints that the girl’s grandmother has been mistreating her. After school, Ronnie admits to writing this note and says that he saw Granny Rigg put Linda’s hand into a laundry mangle.
Gwen investigates, dropping by the Riggs’ cottage. Linda’s hand is indeed injured, but she claims that she did it herself by accident. Granny treated and bandaged the injury.
Ronnie’s mom blames Gwen for interfering when her son could have been safely away at school. She goes to see Mrs Rigg. The next day, Ronnie comes out of his coma and Mom takes him away from the village as soon as he’s out of the hospital.
Ronnie’s bewildered father is left behind, since he still doesn’t want to leave Heddaby to join them. Gwen tells him that she believes his wife struck some kind of bargain with Mrs Riggs, along the lines that if Ronnie got better she’d permanently separate him from Linda. Dad, who’s been drinking since his family went, declares that he’ll go and ask Mrs Riggs if that’s true.
Whether or not he got to the Riggs’ cottage that night–and Mrs Riggs says he never did–he’s found drowned in the village pond the next morning.
When Gwen has a look at the pond, she sees what look like numerous bare footprints in the mud, enough for at least 10 or 12 people–but then a flock of sheep abruptly come rushing in, trampling through the area and obscuring any prints. They also surround Gwen and knock her down.
Stephanie rescues Gwen and takes her back to the Bax home to rest and spend the night. She blames her dogs for startling the sheep and making them run, but she didn’t see any bare footprints.
But Gwen is insistent, and tells the local constable that she’ll make a statement about this as well as about her last conversation with the dead man regarding Mrs. Rigg at the inquest.
This isn’t a bad movie in some respects. It has an eerie moment here and there and some interesting conversations about giving magic power by believing in it, but the plot never fully coheres. For example, the prologue in Africa has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, except to put Gwen into a fragile state of mind and to give the people trying to frighten her a chance to parade some African masks around at the Bax house that night. She thinks it’s an hallucination (she’s had at least one before), but it brings about a second nervous collapse.
Gwen wakes in a nursing home with amnesia. The last thing she remembers is being in Africa during the attack on the school and thinks when she first wakes that that’s where she still is.
The doctor (Leonard Rossiter! I’m always delighted to see Reg Perrin show up, even in a small role like this) reassures her that her memory of recent events will return when it’s ready to–and it does a few days later when one of the other patients is visited by a little girl who has a new doll like the one Ronnie bought for Linda. Everything comes rushing back.
Gwen sneaks out of the nursing home and hitches a ride back to Heddaby, hoping to make her statement about the footprints at the pond. She has missed the inquest, and the doctor has beaten her to the Bax house to tell them she’s left the nursing home; they were the ones paying for her to recover there. Instead of sending her back to the nursing home, Stephanie decides that if Gwen now remembers what happened, then she’s well enough to be out. Gwen can stay with them until she’s fully recovered, although not in the same room that she was staying in the night of her collapse.
That evening from her bedroom window, Gwen observes several of the villagers creeping into the ruins of the church. Certain that whatever they’ve been planning is going to happen tonight, she heads out to put a stop to it.
The really very peculiar thing about The Witches? Look at the story: An outsider is asked to come to a remote village where Christianity has died out and the seemingly friendly villagers provide clues that misdirect the newcomer about what’s really going on. Ultimately, it appears that a virginal young girl is being prepared for sacrifice at an upcoming pagan ceremony, and the outsider attempts to intervene to save the girl. The plot as it unfolds seems to be a tepid copy of Anthony Schaffer’s brilliant The Wicker Man without the catchy sexually themed folk songs or naked dancing… except that The Witches was made 7 years earlier.
As it draws toward its climax, one expects the ending to be something like The Wicker Man‘s with Joan Fontaine in the Edward Woodward role, but nothing like that happens. Which is a pity. It’s not just that Gwen isn’t burnt alive while the villagers sing a cheerful song, nor even that she manages to escape a similar horrific fate. Instead, the whole thing fizzles out disappointingly.
When Gwen ventures into the ruined church, she and we encounter the most disturbing image in this film: what appears to be a misshapen rag doll flops about, obviously alive, in the center of what Kneale would call a “pentacle” in Quatermass and the Pit, but is more like an elaborate Venn Diagram. Gwen investigates, and it turns out to be the black cat, placed inside a doll-bag that has a photograph of Linda’s face attached.
Then the village coven surrounds her. It’s a group of people she knows well, and they’ve been waiting for her.
And here’s where things start to go wrong. The coven’s leader, who had been so clever in misdirecting Gwen and managing everyone else up until this point, forces Gwen to join the coven and lets her in on all their secrets. The ceremony that evening isn’t to be the expected virgin sacrifice, but a spell to make an old person young again, and it requires an untouched child not yet 15 to provide the new body. There’s aren’t any catchy folk songs, but there is a neat little rhyme that goes with this spell, which I suspect is Kneale’s work:
“Grow me a gown from golden down.
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe.
Give me a skin for dancing in.”
Gwen is given the task of escorting the hypnotically entranced Linda out for her part in the ceremony. As they prepare to enact the spell, the leader tells Gwen exactly how to thwart their purpose. Which Gwen does when the crucial moment arises. Doh!
IMDB tells me that Nigel Kneale was dissatisfied with how this film turned out. He thought the idea of a village coven in modern England was ridiculous, and wanted to poke more fun at it. The scenes of the ritual performed at the end aren’t deliberately funny, although there is something amusing about watching the villagers, many of whom we’ve seen are barely literate, chanting in Latin. I don’t think it’s the way this part is written that makes it fall flat; it seems fairly well researched to sound like the kind of thing a scholar of the occult might dig up in a medieval book about witchcraft. Nor is it the performances of the actors, who certainly throw themselves into their roles as devoted cultists. Maybe the direction is too static, or the dancing too stilted.
*I was surprised to recognize Martin Stephens as the boy who threatens the sacrificial virgin’s virginity. He was an extremely talented child actor in the late ’50s and early ’60s, best known for playing the creepy little possibly possessed boy in The Innocents and the even creepier little glowing-eyed alien boy in Village of the Damned. Here, he’s grown into a gawky adolescent, and this was his last role before he left acting.
Among the village coven, I also recognize Michele Dotrice, who was the witch Margaret in Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Duncan Lamont and Bryan Marshall from Quatermass and the Pit, which was Kneale’s next film with Hammer.