The Witches (1966 film)

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Not to be confused with The Witches (1990 film).
The Witches
The Witches poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Cyril Frankel
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys
Written by Peter Curtis aka Norah Lofts
Based on The Devil's Own (novel)
Starring Joan Fontaine
Kay Walsh
Alec McCowen
Ann Bell
Ingrid Boulting (billed as Ingrid Brett)
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Edited by Chris Barnes
James Needs
Production
company
Distributed by Associated British-Pathé
(United Kingdom)
20th Century Fox
(United States)
Release date
21 November 1966 (London)
February 1967 (United States)
Running time
90 min.
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Witches (US: The Devil's Own) is a 1966 British horror film made by Hammer Films. It was adapted by Nigel Kneale from the novel The Devil's Own by Norah Lofts, published under the pseudonym Peter Curtis. It was directed by Cyril Frankel and starred Joan Fontaine (in her final feature-film performance), Alec McCowen, Kay Walsh, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting (billed as Ingrid Brett) and Gwen Ffrangcon Davies. This was the final big-screen film role for Fontaine.

Plot[edit]

The film opens with an English schoolteacher, Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), packing up her belongings at a mission school in colonial Africa. The local witch doctors have led a rebellion, and they reach the school before she is able to escape - the shaman wearing a body mask. Gwen screams, and the scene dissolves to the opening credits.

The next scene is back home in England, where Gwen meets with the apparently Reverend Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job interview. We discover that Gwen suffered a nervous breakdown from whatever she experienced at the hand of the rebels when the school was attacked. Alan is impressed by Gwen and hires her to be the new head teacher at the small private school he and his sister, well-known journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh) run for the local children in the village of Heddaby.

Upon moving into the teacher's cottage, Gwen asks her maid, Valerie (Michele Dotrice) where she might find the rectory. Valerie is confused - she knows there is no rectory - until Gwen explains she would like to thank Mr Bax. "Oh, you mean the Baxes' house!" she says, and shows her the way after tea.

At the house, Gwen meets Stephanie and mentions she tried to look for the church on the way but couldn't find it. Stephanie explains there isn't any church, and no "Reverend Alan Bax" - but that the pretence is completely harmless. Alan shows Gwen the old church, now a ruin, as he walks her home. He confesses to her that he is not really a priest - "I wanted to enter the Church, but I failed." He notes that he does not try to persuade anyone or officiate, but sometimes wears the priestly collar "for security." Gwen tries to find out more about why the old church was left a ruin but Alan mysteriously turns silent and seems to be unable to move, so she says good night and leaves him to his thoughts.

School begins and, initially, the only drama is that the other teacher, Sally Benson, is late to arrive. She was on holiday in France and the boat was held up. She does not live in Heddaby but in the town nearby where her boyfriend lives.

Two of Gwen's students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) (son of Gwen's gardener) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), spend a lot of time together and are on their way to becoming boyfriend and girlfiend. But for some inexplicable reason, the entire town seems to disapprove of their friendship and prospective romantic relationship; and wants them apart, especially Linda's grandmother, Granny Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies). Ronnie includes an anonymous note for Gwen in the stack of homework stating that Linda's grandmother "treats her something crool." Gwen realises the note must be from him and questions him about it. He explains that Linda and her grandmother were in the washroom and thought he had gone after walking Linda home from school; but he was still there and saw as Mrs Rigg put Linda's hand through the mangle (wringer) of the washing machine.

Gwen goes to visit Linda at home, who claims to have hurt her hand washing doll clothes. Linda's grandmother seems to Gwen to be a cheerful woman, and is well-versed in the making of home remedies from herbs. But Linda is able to have a quiet word with Gwen while Mrs Rigg is out of the room, so she knows that things are not all that they seem.

Ronnie turns out to be a very clever lad. Alan offers to pay to send Ronnie to a cramming school so he can catch up in time to pass the necessary examinations to follow a university preparation course of study in high school. But Ronnie's father doesn't like the idea of sending him away and Gwen is concerned that Ronnie might find he's so far behind that he'll lose heart. So she agrees to give him the extra tutoring he needs herself.

Meanwhile, Ronnie has given Linda a male doll to match her female doll, obviously to represent the two of them. The doll turns up missing. Ronnie thinks Linda has thrown it out but Linda asserts it is lost. The next morning, Ronnie's parents discover he fell into a coma overnight and Gwen arrives at the house just as the ambulance is taking him to hospital.

Later, while conducting lessons outside, Gwen finds Linda's missing male doll in the fork of a tree, stuck full of pins and with its head missing. She shows it to Stephanie who suggests it might be someone in Heddaby having a little dabble in witchcraft. Gwen wants to remove the pins but Stephanie says, "Oh, no! Emphatically not! Do you see why? That would mean admitting belief in it - for ourselves." Gwen sees her point and remarks, "What we believe and what we think we believe, could destroy us." Stephanie is impressed and suggests she and Gwen should write an article together on the subject of witchcraft in contemporary England, especially given Gwen's prior experience in Africa.

Gwen then encounters Mrs Dowsett walking home from the hospital. Mr Dowsett had previously told Gwen the his wife, a Welshwoman who "has some silly notions," had a case of shingles the year before after she had an argument over Ronnie with Mrs Rigg. Gwen offers Mrs Dowsett a ride home, asks about her illness the year before and whether she thinks Ronnie's illness is natural. Mrs Dowsett becomes upset and demands Gwen stop the car and let her out, whereupon she quickly makes her way to Mrs Rigg's house.

The next day, Ronnie is well again. Mr Dowsett arrives at the school, having spent some time in the pub, and informs Gwen that Mrs Dowsett has taken Ronnie to her family in Wales. Dowsett was welcome to go with them but, "I couldn't go just like that." Gwen then informs Dowsett that Mrs Dowsett went to see Mrs Rigg the night before and she things they struck some kind of bargain. Dowsett then goes off to confront Mrs Rigg about it. The next morning, he is found drowned at the beach.

Gwen goes to the beach where Dowsett's body was found. After passing Stephanie, who is walking her dogs, she discovers several footprints. A herd of sheep then runs along the beach, chased by Stephanie's dogs, and they knock Gwen down. "They broke away and wouldn't answer," Stephanie says. "They've never done it before." She helps Gwen up and learns about the footprints. Stephanie suggests there may have been a coven of witches on the beach that night, who killed Dowsett because they stumbled across them. An inquest is set for Monday and Gwen states she will tell everything she knows at that time.

Stephanie takes Gwen to recuperate at her house, where Dr Wallace gives her a tetanus injection. Gwen wakes in the night to see an African object on her bedside table, which frightens her. She gets out of bed and calls for Stephanie, but when she opens the door she is apparently met by the same body-masked witch doctor she encountered in Africa. She faints into a relapse of the breakdown she suffered in Africa.

She wakes several weeks later in a nursing home (small private hospital) but has no memory of her life after returning to England a year ago. She initially thinks she is still in Africa ("This isn't the coast, it's too cool.") Dr Wallace explains that she has generous friends who are paying for her care, and that her memory will come back when it wants to. On another occasion, she sees Alan with Dr Wallace outside her window but does not recognise him. A few days later, a little girl arrives to visit her grandmother at the nursing home. She has a new doll, the sight of which jogs Gwen's memory and she whispers, "Heddaby."

Her memory recovered, Gwen realises there is no time to waste. Linda is in danger of being made a ritual sacrifice. She sneaks out of the nursing home and hitchhikes her way back to Heddaby. She is picked up on the way by Mr Curd, the local butcher, who stops outside his shop to pick up a package to deliver to the Baxes. Several people see Gwen and say how nice it is to have her back. Mrs Curd comes out of the butcher shop ostensibly to do the same but instead softly warns, "They've got the girl!" Mr Curd takes Gwen to the Baxes, where she is warmly received by Alan, Stephanie and Dr Wallace, who got there before her because Alan and Stephanie were the friends paying for her care.

A few days later, Gwen goes to see Mrs Rigg to enquire after Linda. She is visibly worried but tells Gwen that Linda is at her cousin's in Great Yarmouth. Alan then arrives and Gwen can ask no further questions. From her room at the Baxes' house, Gwen sees people furtively scurrying along a path through the cemetery. She follows them and ends up in the ruins of the old church, where she finds a sack doll with a picture of Linda attached to it. The doll is dancing about a witches' circle. Gwen grabs the doll, unzips it and discovers that Mrs Rigg's cat, Vesper, is inside. He runs away and Stephanie is surprised to find Alan there, wearing his priestly collar. "Come away from here," Alan calls. But before she can, someone else enters the room and takes their attention.

It is Stephanie, dressed in ceremonial robes and antlers. "I willed you to come and you came!" she says to Gwen. It turns out that she is the leader of the coven, and her interest in Gwen all along has been to make her an acolyte to assist her. Stephanie directs Alan to leave, the others emerge from the shadows, and Gwen is formally initiated.

Stephanie and Gwen return to the house, where Stephanie explains everything. She has studied witchcraft as a science and uses it very powerfully. She also has the only surviving copy of a book of Brother Johann Woodswurch, in which he detailed the process for extending one's own life through the ritual sacrifice of a pure maiden (thus, Ronnie Dowsett had to be kept out of the way) and not more than 15 years old (Linda is still 14). Gwen is horrified to read the Latin, which Stephanie then recites the rhyme in English, "Grow me a gown with golden down. Cut me a robe from toe to lobe. Give me a skin for dancing in."

The thing is to happen at Lammastide - the next night. Stephanie and Gwen review the essential material in the book. The seeker-after-life is warned that everything at the place of sacrifice must be kept pure up to the moment of sacrifice - no blood or animal defilement, etc., "lest the whole dread power do turn upon the seeker." In particular, the knife must be well-practised in the art of human sacrifice. "You haven't one," Gwen asserts. "You can't have!" But Stephanie simply goes to her desk drawer, pulls out and holds up a very fancy ancient-looking knife like something the Aztecs might have used, and says, "From ancient Mexico!"

Gwen tries to get Alan to tell her where Linda is, but he cannot say anything. The next evening, Stephanie takes Gwen to the old church, where Linda has been hidden. Gwen tries to talk to her but she is in a trance. The ritual begins and it Gwen fears she is unable to do anything to stop it. But just as raises her hand to strike the blow, Gwen sees and grabs another knife, cuts her own arm, and wipes the blood on Stephanie's robe. "Blood!" she cries out, then quotes: "At the moment of sacrifice, let no blood be spilled!"

Stephanie is seized with a convulsion, as she throws off her headdress and tries to remove her stained gown from the place - but it is too late, and she dies. Linda revives and everyone else seems to come out of a daze, too. "It was in her all the time!" Gwen says.

Weeks later, it is the start of a new school term and the village is very happy. Sally Benson arrives and is surprised by all the changes, "What's been happening? Curd gone away; the general store's a supermarket. Has everyone been moving out or something?" Alan, who has been installing loudspeakers in the classroom, then says, "The one who matters didn't!" and Gwen smiles.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

The village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, was the filming location for the fictional village of Heddaby. Interiors were filmed at Hammer's usual studio at Bray in the same year that the famous horror film company vacated their home altogether for (mainly) Elstree and Pinewood. The cast featured child-actor Martin Stephens, then 17. The supporting cast also included Hammer regular Duncan Lamont, as well as John Collin, Michele Dotrice, Leonard Rossiter and Bryan Marshall. The score was by Richard Rodney Bennett.

In a later magazine interview, Nigel Kneale said that he was dissatisfied with the way the film had turned out. Personally, he found modern black magic practitioners to be fairly risible and he had intended to poke fun at the idea of an English coven. His blackly comic touches were removed by the production team, who wanted the film to be entirely serious.

Critical reception[edit]

Variety called the film "routine entertainment".[1] The Hammer Story: The Authorised Biography of Hammer Films called the film "unsettling, though compromised by a hysterical climax", writing, "when The Witches strikes the right balance it ultimately succeeds as an engrossing thriller, even if it ultimately disappoints as Hammer horror."[2]

As of 2013, The Witches currently holds a three star rating (5.8/10) on IMDb and 40% maximum approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Witches". Variety. 31 December 1965. 
  2. ^ Hearn & Barnes 2007, p. 109.
Sources
  • Hearn, Marcus; Barnes, Alan (September 2007). "The Witches". The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films (Limited ed.). Titan Books. ISBN 1 84576 185 5. 

External links[edit]