The Witches. Film Review

witches coverTHE WITCHES

Director: Cyril Frankel        

Screenplay: Nigel Kneale

Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh and Alec McCowen

Format: Blu-ray/DVD         

Certificate: 12          

Running Time: 88 Mins

Release Date: 21st October (with a cinema premiere as part of the BFI London Film Festival, October 11th)

Reviewed by Guy Adams

THE WITCHES is something of a curiosity, unevenly straddling extremes. It is neither quite as good as it should be nor as awful as it might have been. At it’s best it’s genuinely witty and unsettling, at its worst it’s a bunch of aged extras throwing shapes in a fibre-glass cave.

The cinematic swan song for Joan Fontaine, the actress had bought the rights to THE DEVIL’S OWN, the novel by Norah Lofts (published under the pseudonym Peter Curtis) that forms the basis for the movie, believing its central character would provide strong material for a resurgence of her career. Sadly the film didn’t perform well enough to fulfill her ambitions.

An example of Folk Horror, that curiously ubiquitous streak of late sixties/early seventies British Horror filmmaking, THE WITCHES tells a familiar enough tale of an outsider slowly realising the country idyll she has moved to might not be as innocuous as it first appears. It’s a story that THE WICKER MAN (also released this month from StudioCanal) would make its very own seven years later.

The inconsistency of the production surely stems from the divergent aims of those involved. Fontaine wanted a serious movie, Hammer Films wanted to play to its regular crowd and offer creepy, exploitative fun. Screenwriter, Nigel Kneale wanted to write a comical script, mocking modern-day satanists, the producers felt the film’s tone should be serious and scary. It’s no wonder that, with so many hands tugging at the rudder, the result is a choppy ride.

That said, there is a great deal to enjoy. Fontaine is outshone by an excellent supporting cast, in particular Kay Walsh, whose charm and presence almost manage to salvage the disappointingly rushed climax. The script, while certainly not Nigel Kneale at his best (because Nigel Kneale at his best was simply unstoppable) manages to bring both well-intentioned smiles and the odd effective shiver.

In a curious way it therefore manages to encapsulate the entire output of Hammer Films. I am a ferocious fan of the studio but also honest enough to admit part of their charm was that few of their films ever attained perfection. They were fun, engaging, rides, that constantly walked a fine line between excellence and abject failure. THE WITCHES can happily feel right at home.

As a fan of Hammer, I’ve been well-treated by Studio Canal over the last few years who have been part of a larger project to restore the company’s catalogue and release it on Blu-ray. They haven’t always had an easy time of it, with many of their releases being met with hostility from a vocal minority who have found numerous minor quibbles to rage at. While sympathetic with a fan’s desire to see these movies presented to a point of perfection, we are seeing the Hammer catalogue treated with a love and respect never before seen on the home video market and I would urge any fan of the films to support the releases. It’s pure selfishness on my part but I want to see them continue! Certainly there can be no argument over the quality of THE WITCHES, the film looks and sounds better than ever and the inclusion of a brand new documentary, Hammer Glamour, interviewing many of the actresses who worked with the studio over the years makes the entire package an extremely attractive purchase. Despite having received a review disc my pre-order for the film stands, the restoration project demands the support of our enthusiasm and, above all, wallets!

The restored film is premiering at the BFI London Film festival on the 11th October and released in a dual format Blu-ray/DVD set on the 21st.