Halloween Havoc!: Joan Fontaine in THE WITCHES (Hammer 1966)

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THE WITCHES (also called THE DEVIL’S OWN) was the last film of Oscar winner Joan Fontaine. This Hammer entry in the “older actress do horror” sweepstakes is a low-key, atmospheric thriller about devil worshippers in the English countryside that holds up right until its (for me) unsatisfying finale. But we’ll get to that later.

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Miss Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a missionary in darkest Africa attacked in the midst of an uprising by a voodoo cult. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Gwen interviews for a job as a teacher at a private school in Heddaby run by siblings Alan and Stephanie Bax. Alan wears a clerical collar, though Gwen soon discovers when she gets the job he’s not a reverend after all. In fact, the local church is in ruins. She receives a note from Ronnie Dorsett, a gifted student in need of tutoring, about Linda Riggs, a girl he’s sweet on. The note says Linda’s “Granny treats her crool”, and the boy tells Gwen that old Granny put Linda’s hand through the wash wringer. When Gwen goes to the Riggs’ home, she’s told Linda just had an accident, though Gwen notices the home is filled with homemade potions. What she doesn’t notice is Granny’s black cat Vesper has been following her.

Ronnie’s later taken away by ambulance after slipping into a coma. Gwen discovers a doll with its head missing, pins sticking in it, and angry Mrs. Dorsett blames her for her son’s woes. Ronnie gets a little better, and his mother takes him out of Heddaby to Wales. Mr. Dorsett is found the next day drowned in a pond, and Gwen sees footprints in the reeds. She’s then nearly attacked by a herd of sheep, whose trampling obliterates them. Gwen begins to put things together and concludes “they” are planning on sacrificing Linda. Stephanie urges her to remain quiet until they can gather more evidence, but before they do, Gwen is revisited by the voodoo horrors she encountered in Africa.

Gwen’s taken to a nursing home after suffering another breakdown, with no recollection of what happened in Heddaby. She regains it when she sees a child’s doll, triggering her memory, and escapes the home, returning to the village. The people act oh-so-civilized towards her, but when she observes them scurrying about in the dark through her window, she follows them to the church ruins. There Stephanie is conducting a Latin Black Mass, praying to almighty Satan! Gwen is coerced into learning the ritual that will keep Witch Queen Stephanie young by transferring herself into Linda’s body.

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The bizarre ritual begins with some well-choreographed pagan dancing, eerie drum beats, eating entrails, and an orgy. Linda is possessed by Stephanie’s will and joins in the dark revelry. She’s about to be sacrificed when Gwen disrupts the proceedings by spilling blood on Stephanie’s sacred robe, killing her instantly. The villagers are released from the witch’s power, and Gwen and Alan live happily ever after.

THE WITCHES is for the most part filled with quiet horror and a sense of dread, not unlike a Val Lewton production. The only thing that stops me from liking it more is the abrupt end of the witch Stephanie. I expected a fiery demise or the summoning of some netherworld demons, instead it’s just blood on the robe and *poof*, party’s over. It just seems all that buildup was wasted for what would’ve been a real genre classic.

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Joan Fontaine is good, as always. The star of Hitchcock’s REBECCA and SUSPICION (which garnered her the Oscar) and JANE EYRE had a long, illustrious career, but was overshadowed by sister Olivia de Havilland   . Their feud is almost as famous as their films, and regrettably the siblings didn’t speak to each other for decades until Fontaine passed away in 2013.

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Kay Walsh plays Stephanie, at first seeming to be Gwen’s only ally until her true nature is revealed. The former wife of director David Lean was featured in such British films as IN WHICH WE SERVE, OLIVER TWIST, STAGE FRIGHT, and THE MAGIC BOX, among her many credits. Alec McCowen (Alan) was primarily a theater actor whose film work includes A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, and Hitchcok’s FRENZY. Martin Stephens (Ronnie)  played in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and THE INNOCENTS. Ingrid Boulting (billed here as Ingrid Brett) plays Linda.

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Cyril Frankel’s direction of Nigel Kneale’s script is moody and properly tense. If it wasn’t for the so-so ending, I’d rate THE WITCHES a lot higher on the horror scale. As it is, I’d have to say it’s a not quite classic supernatural story, and recommend it for its first 85 minutes. The last five stop it from being completely satisfying for genre fans, or maybe that’s just me. Give it a look yourselves and make your own judgements!

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