A mixed bag of neat ideas and delicious macabre along with farcical execution and uneven pacing make Hammer’s 1966 film The Witches for aficionados only.
The Blu-ray transfer of Hammer Studios’ library continues with this impeccable restoration of The Witches, a Wicker Man-style feat of tension that, while surely inspiring – to some extent – Robin Hardy’s classic seven years later, bears little other similarity with it than structure.
The ingredients are all there – an overbearing grandmother in a hillside house, mysterious dolls that look oddly representative of certain characters, and a plump black feline that shows up one too many times to be a coincidence (as a hasty zoom shot is keen to stress). The problem is that these elements never properly cohere to thoroughly convince: too often the script relies on contrivances and coincidences to further its insane plot to the overly hysterical climax.
Not that it’s in any hurry to get there, anyway – first we’ve got an hour of build-up as schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) returns from a horrifying experience with Witch Doctors in Africa, only to find that dark magic has penetrated even her beloved schoolyard. The first third is a slog through exposition rather than any dramatic increase in tension, and even when a particularly incredulous twist halfway through mixes things up, the script stalls again, tiptoeing limply to the final act.
Kay Walsh aptly hams it up as Stephanie Bax, a writer who befriends Gwen, even as her character arc predictably goes where it needs to. When the narrative does come full circle, it’s not at all as horrific as could have been achieved; instead it’s simply weird, and comes bluntly and abruptly – though of course it had to, with two thirds of the film taken up already.
There’s a handful of inventive shots, a pair of disembodied hands sharpening knives being perhaps the most memorable standout in attempts to build a sense of terror, and the soundtrack is commendable – the use of percussion in particular marrying together Gwen’s experiences with witches in both Africa and England.
But while the fundamental concept of The Witches is far more interesting than its bland title suggests, the execution is – at best – merely dull; at worst, farcical. If you’re already a fan of the film, then all you need to hear is that this is one of the strongest examples of Blu-ray restoration yet in Hammer’s back catalogue, and definitely worth a purchase for collectors. Everyone else would do better to steer clear.
Written by Chris Wharfe
Directed by: Cyril Frankel
Written by: Nigel Kneale
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting
Released: 1966 / Genre: Horror / Country: UK / IMDB