1966 was a good year for Hammer Studios. They were at the peak of their abilities and producing some of their finest work. They also attracted a superb set of actors, and in this case they had the luxury of working with Joan Fontaine, who actually brought the project for them. Combine this with a script adapted by Nigel Kneale (the writer behind Quatermass) and one might reasonably expect great things. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, The Witches only half delivers.

One can instantly see why Fontaine wanted the part. Strong roles for women were few and far between in that era (indeed, the same could be said of today), and though her character, schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield, often seems fragile here, she's a complicated individual, resourceful and capable of summoning up great courage when it counts. A successful occult story always needs a central character whom we can see as vulnerable, and Fontaine's slender build combines with her character's troubled mental history to provide something a little extra in that regard - yet the real issue, as so often, is that she's overwhelmed, out of her depth - as events take a turn for the sinister, she becomes convinced that she can trust no-one.

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These events take place in the small English town of Heddaby, a place whose chintz curtains and odour of flower arranging may make Hammer fans want to scream for other reasons. Recently returned from a mission school in an anonymous region of Africa, where she encountered events she's now hesitant to talk about, Miss Mayfield agrees to take on a job at the local school. The children all seem friendly and eager to learn, and she engages with them easily. Young Ronnie, in particular, is unusually bright, to the point where she offers private tuition to try and help him win a scholarship. So why is it that everybody in the town seems determined to keep him apart from shy, doll-carrying girl Linda? When she discovers an image of the boy stuck full of pins, Miss Mayfield suspects that their interest in her purity is about more than just disapproval of the Permissive Society.

From there on, Miss Mayfield's fate seems set. But there is still a question. Is she the straightforward would-be saviour seen in films like The Devil Rides Out, or are we heading for a Wicker Man style twist? Is it really in her interests to keep on pushing when she finds herself carefully sidelined? Smart direction and well judged performances keep us guessing - all the way up to a contrived finale which is both hammy and ham-fisted. There's a natural Christopher Lee role at the heart of it and suffice to say that the person who fills it (I shan't name names and spoil the surprise) doesn't have his charisma; as such the devotion of followers just doesn't quite convince. What might have been spine-chilling occult scenes descend into cheesiness, and the film runs the gamut of foolish evil overlord clich├ęs, right down to spelling out to our heroine what she needs to do to save the day. Right when we need them, the twists stop coming. It's a disappointing end to a promising little thriller, but if you like a good sinister atmosphere, fancy clothes, scowling rural folk and helpless young women writhing around in magic circles, you may still find much to enjoy.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2010
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A teacher starting a new job in a quaint English town begins to suspect that something is seriously amiss.
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Director: Cyril Frankel

Writer: Nigel Kneale, based on the book by Norah Lofts.

Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting, Ingrid Boulting, Michele Dotrice, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies

Year: 1966

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

London 2013

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If you like this, try:

Suspiria
To The Devil A Daughter