It would be rather foolish of me to suggest that The Witches is some kind of forgotten classic, a horror gem. Its strictly an average, below-par Hammer film, and yet it still has much to recommend it.
Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a teacher who has returned to England and is returning to her profession after suffering a breakdown whilst working in Africa, caused by a nightmarish experience involving witchcraft (this experience features in a rather needless prologue that is really the only notably true ‘Hammer’ moment of the whole film). Hired to be the head schoolteacher of a quiet and remote village school, she arrives to find the villagers very pleasant and friendly, and the village itself idyllic and beautiful. But as she spends more time there she begins to suspect that there is a darkness in the background, and that perhaps this perfect rural existence is a mask hiding true terrors within. The villagers frown disapprovingly at a blossoming childhood romance at the school, the boy falls ill suspiciously and later the girl mysteriously disappears. Incredible as it seems in such a quaint, pleasant and God-fearing (albeit the Church is, yes, a ruin) village, an old woman with a black cat appears, yes, to be a Witch… and perhaps not alone in her dark magic… The shadows of Mayfield’s earlier breakdown at the hands of witchcraft threaten to overwhelm her once more.
For all its faults as a Hammer Horror, or even as a horror film at all (it has to be said, its without hardly any frights whatsoever), this is one of the better-looking Hammer films I have yet seen. There is a great deal of beautiful location filming, giving a tangible and vivid sense of reality to it and even the sets are convincing, hardly like those of most Hammer films. Its a very classy-looking movie. The pace of the film is a wonderful slow-burn as the mystery deepens and the village becomes stranger and stranger, until an abrupt ‘twist’ at the third act drives the film forward in a strange direction abruptly unravelling everything. At this point the film becomes just another silly Hammer Horror which is such a shame, as that third act, thoroughly spoils the movie. By that point I had thought it compared quite well with something like The Wicker Man, even. Indeed, as the plot developed I really thought it was telling a very similar story with Fontaine’s character about to suffer a similar fate to Ed Woodwards doomed policeman Neil Howie, to the point that I was beginning to question the supposed originality and commonly accepted classic status of that movie. Its almost as if The Witches could have been The Wicker Man, or perhaps The Blood on Satan’s Claw, another superior film with similar themes, but chickened out. Its just remarkable how close this film came some years before those two classic British horrors. A bit more conviction and it might have been great. As it is, its pretty much forgettable, other than for its surprisingly high production values,
No doubt Hammer fans will love it, for everyone else I’d recommend a rental first. The HD restoration is great on the Blu-ray though, a better effort than some of the ‘classics’ seem to have received. Perhaps the print was in better condition, but its strange that such a minor Hammer looks, well, so great. If only the movie warranted it…