Friday, March 22, 2019

THE WITCHES (1966) Blu-ray review

The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own) (1966) d. Cyril Frankel (UK) (91 min)

Following a traumatic experience involving witch doctors and voodoo while in Africa, fragile but recovering Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) accepts an appointment in a small and secluded English village. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh), and the entirety of the local community welcome the Haddaby School’s new headmistress with open arms. But beneath the quiet and quaint surface, a sinister secret society holds sway, singling out two young sweethearts (Ingrid Brett, Martin Stephens) for a dark and mysterious purpose and it’s up to Gwen to face her fears and challenge the forces of evil before it’s too late!

One of Hammer’s lesser efforts, fueled by “hag horror” movement (inspired by the success of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) of hiring aging Hollywood starlets to headline potboiler plots. Hitchcock fave Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion) acquired the project, brought it to Hammer, and proves game enough in her final big-screen venture, and she is matched blow for blow by Walsh (co-star of Hitchock’s Stage Fright) who dominates the picture in the final reel. Walsh’s co-star McCowen also spent time under The Master of Suspense’s tutelage, appearing as Chief Inspector Oxford in Frenzy (1972).

Adapted by Nigel Kneale from Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own (writing as Peter Curtis), the film’s main problem lies in its uninspired exploration of witches and covens in the modern era. Director Frankel (who helmed Hammer’s disturbingly authentic child abuse thriller Never Take Sweets from a Stranger) doesn’t make his ordinary townspeople terrifying or even threatening or disconcerting in their ordinariness, and the finale, an exhausting eight-minute gobbledegook ritual commits the worst of all cinematic sins, that of being laughable and laughably dull. Even child star Stephens (The Innocents, Village of the Damned) is awkward and ill-used in his last onscreen acting role.

More significantly, The Witches never feels like a Hammer production except in name. While there are a few familiar names in the credits (production manager Bernard Robinson, editor James Needs, producer Anthony Nelson Keys), it pales beside the other films that the studio rolled out the same banner year: Dracula Prince of Darkness, The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies, Rasputin the Mad Monk, and One Million Years B.C. – one has to wonder if the overabundance of 1962 product spread things a little thin, keeping The Witches from casting a genuine spell.


NEW Audio Commentary With Filmmaker/Historian Ted Newsom

Hammer Glamour – 2013 documentary directed by Marcus Hearn on the Women of Hammer , zipping through the studio’s array of lovely ladies, including amusing and frank interviews with Vera Day (Quatermass II), Caroline Munro (Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter), Martine Beswick (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), Valerie Leon (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb), Madeleine Smith (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), and Jenny Hanley (Scars of Dracula). (44 min)

U.S. Trailer (billed as The Devil’s Own)

Double Feature Trailer Prehistoric Women and The Devil’s Own

Still Gallery

The Devils is available on Blu-ray now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:


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