Review: The Witches / Cert: 12 / Director: Cyril Frankel / Screenplay: Nigel Kneale / Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen / Release Date: October 21st
Nigel Kneale is seen by many as the grandfather of British horror, and with scripts such as The Quatermass Experiment under his belt, you can see why. The Witches is one of his lesser known works, and rarely appears on the list of well-loved Hammer horror movies. However, a re-release has been long overdue, and this painstakingly restored movie is certainly worth a look.
The plot is very typical of Kneale’s work; an English school teacher has a run-in with the occult whilst on her travels in Africa, and returns back to sleepy old England to recover and re-energise herself. Of course, she happens to be staying in a quaint village filled with slightly odd locals, the sort of place that is beloved by British horror movies. A child falls ill and sinister workings are uncovered, and wackiness ensues.
Those used to in-your-face gore and shock horror will not find this feature very engaging; this is a gentle horror that builds tension over time. Much of the film’s power relies on Joan Fontaine’s strong performance as the school teacher; there’s a significant conflict of classes here with the Woman’s Institute-attending, cake-baking, middle-class school teacher being shocked by the common folk and their funny ways.
Given that this sort of slowly creeping horror has been superbly parodied by the likes of The League of Gentlemen, it is sometimes hard to take The Witches seriously, especially during certain key scenes that are absurd rather than haunting. This is because viewing tastes and sensibilities have moved on, rather than due to any actual flaw in the original piece. Unlike The Wicker Man (which this film resembles in some ways) the sense of peril is simply not terribly convincing, and at points it’s hard to be sympathetic for the protagonist. This version of the movie comes with a documentary called Hammer Glamour which is quite fun but doesn’t really have any huge revelations for Hammer Horror fans.
If you happen to have not seen a film since 1967, or simply enjoy vintage horror movies and don’t mind a slow and steady pace to your shocks, you might want to check this out. Those who demand a quicker pace and more action, however, should leave well alone.
Extras: Hammer Glamour featurette / Audio commentary