FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Witches (1966)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

In her final film role, the wonderful Joan Fontaine stars as Gwen Mayfield, a teacher recently returned from teaching in an African school after a frightful experience with the occult. She accepts a teaching post in the quiet, little farming village of Heddaby, which seems like the perfect English tonic to Gwen's recent woes. However, strange events soon start occurring in the village; a boy is taken ill in mysterious circumstances and old Granny Rigg seems to be at the heart of it. Gwen begins to investigate and is shocked to realise she may have discovered instances of black magic. 

In my earlier review for The Witches of Eastwick, I talked about the extraordinary change that the witch had gone through as a symbol of femininity. In Eastwick, it's a form of empowerment, a way in which the female leads can take back control of their lives. The Witches is much more traditional and reductionist in its approach, even incorporating the very fairytale villain motivation of growing old as the reason for the nefarious goings-on. It's a corruption of femininity here, just as the magic is a corruption of its countryside location.

The eagle-eyed among you will spot the Buckinghamshire filming location as the village from Band of Brothers. It's a quintessential English village, that nationalistic bastion that has long stood as a cultural image of quaint gentility. Of course, Hammer were adept at taking that kind of supposedly friendly setting and render it more nightmarish. After the colonial panic scenes in the African opening to the film, the village is supposed to represent safety for Gwen, a comforting retreat to the world she knows. 

It's clear something isn't quite right with squeaky clean, not-actually-a-reverend Alan Bax from the get go and there's a few looks between the villagers that should've had Gwen retreating. I've spoken before about the innate creepiness of close-knit and small communities with their own weird traditions and relationships. The Witches doesn't manage to pull it off quite as successfully like the sort of similar The Wicker Man, but it does succeed in keeping Gwen firmly as the outsider. She's a woman of the world and Fontaine is an actress of a keen intelligence, which helps distinguish Gwen from the dowdier, accented locals.

Fontaine is the film's shining star and, with her amazingly bouffant hair, gives a great performance as the centre of the film. She's always managed a fine line in conveying a deep, emotional anguish and she utilises it here, keeping Gwen firmly at the heart of the supernatural mystery. Kay Walsh is in imperious form as Stephanie Bax, the only other cast member to really go toe-to-toe with Fontaine, while Alec McCowen's contrasting cowardly Alan may as well walk around with a sign over his head saying "Chief Suspect" for most of it, but it does work to distract you from the film's main twist. 

But then there's the ending after that twist, which takes pretty much every bit of tension that the film had managed to build in the preceding scenes. There's a head-dress with what look like birthday cake candles on it, there's a lot of emphatic gesturing and a dance routine that wouldn't look out of place in a crappy boyband video. All of it is absolutely hilarious. It also goes on for what feels like an absolute age. I assume all the ritualistic gesticulating is supposed to make us all fear for Linda as the intended sacrifice, but then she joins in and starts throwing herself about with abandon. Poor Fontaine looks very regal in the midst of it, but you're just screaming at her do something to make the dancing go away.

It's a real shame because, prior to arm-waving and silly chanting, there's a nice uneasiness to Fontaine's plight, recalling the paranoia of a film like The Innocents. The film never really pushes the ambiguity angle far, but there's always the sense that the villagers are playing Gwen, messing with her head until she's forced into a nursing home to recover. It also seems rather tame by Hammer standards with ending feeling like a last gasp effort to retain some shock value. Which, to be fair, it does, but it's more likely to produce a belly laugh than a horrified cry.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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