2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Heddaby Dabby Doo.,
This review is from: The Witches [DVD]  (DVD)
The Witches is directed by Cyril Frankel and adapted to screenplay by Nigel Kneale from the novel The Devil's Own written by Nora Lofts. It stars Joan Fontaine, Alec McCowen, Kay Walsh, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting, Michele Dotrice and Gwen Ffrangcon Davies. Music is by Philip Martell and Technicolor cinematography by Arthur Grant.
After suffering a breakdown in Africa when she was exposed to witchcraft, schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) returns to England and takes up a position as headmistress at Heddaby School. All seems to be going swimmingly well in this idyllic village location, but it's not long before Gwen senses all is not as it seems here. Or is she just heading for another mental breakdown?
Kneale wanted to make a satire of devil worshippers in rural England, Hammer Films big wigs and director Frankel wanted to make a chiller, the end result is neither, with each side blaming the other. The film flopped at the box office, Fontaine, who had great faith in the story, was deeply upset and went into practical retirement, and it stands today as an enjoyable enough misfire that isn't all it can be.
The main problems are that it never serves as a horror film in spite of the source material suggesting as such, well that and the quite bizarre last quarter of film that pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness! Yet there's enough to enjoy here if accepting it as being more a safe creeper type of a film. In fact Fontaine preferred it to be known as a detective story with a black magic backdrop, so maybe that's exactly how it should be approached these days?
The performances of Fontaine and Walsh are very much up to scratch, the former still beautiful at 51 and neatly imbuing Gwen with confused emotions, the latter firmly relishing a two fold role that calls for enigmatic dallying and hard nosed leadership. Davies holds the attention very well, McCowen is delightfully odd! While Martin Stephens (child star of The Innocents and Village of the Damned) and Boulting (daughter of Brit film legend Roy) add the requisite teen friendship under duress axis.
When the production comes off the sound stage and out into the village locale (Hambleden in Buckinghamshire standing in for Heddaby), it's all rather splendid to look at, but it is conventional film making. Martell's music is a bit too aware of itself, trying hard to make us think horror exists when none is evident, and in a grand year for Hammer Film blood letting, The Witches is decidedly bloodless.
A story of mental breakdowns and witchcraft shouldn't be a pleasant experience, yet that's exactly what The Witches is! For better and worse... 6/10