Color, 1966, 91 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Cyril Frankel
Starring Joan Fontaine, Alec McCowen, Kay Walsh, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Ingrid Brett, Martin Stephens
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Studio Canal (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

An occult vehicle The Witchestailored by Rebecca star The WitchesJoan Fontaine as her big screen comeback, The Witches was largely buried under the deluge of Hammer films popping up seemingly every other week during the mid-'60s. Shorn of such marketable elements as voluptuous maidens in distress or blood-dripping vampires, the film instead has to rely on such niceties as plot and atmosphere to hold the viewer's attention. While the final product isn't a complete success, The Witches is a nice try and a haunting attempt by Hammer to do something out of the ordinary.

Our tale begins with fragile Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) pushed over the edge to a complete nervous breakdown in Africa when she's assaulted by what appears to be some villagers toting around a big mask. A year later she lands a job as a schoolteacher in a quaint English village. The headmistress, Stephanie Bax (Walsh), seems sensible enough, but the villagers are consumed by superstition and don't even have a local church. Bax's brother, Alan (Frenzy's McCowen), failed to make the grade as a priest but still wears a clerical collar and fiddles with organ music anyway, while the slightly creepy Granny Rigg (cross-eyed Davies from The Devil Rides Out) passes the time by shoving the hand of her granddaughter, Linda (Brett), into a handy clothes mangler. Linda's boyfriend, Ronnie (Village of the Damned's head tyke, Stephens, almost unrecognizable here), tells Gwen about some of the sinister goings on and is promptly rewarded by falling into a coma. Soon Gwen comes to believe that witchcraft is at work in the tiny The Witchesvillage, and Linda might The Witchesbe in line as a human sacrifice.

After its silly opening, The Witches settles nicely into a subdued, well-acted shocker relying mostly on implied menace and the skillful performances of its cast. Fontaine, Walsh, and McCowen are particular standouts, and the crisp photography makes the most of the sunny yet threatening locales. Unfortunately the plot takes a major detour at the one hour mark from which it never recovers, content instead to wrap things up with a silly interpretive dance of the witches that looks for all the world like an outtake from Showgirls. The "surprise" villainess even dons an unforgettable piece of headgear made of candles and antlers. Well, at least it's different, and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (Quatermass) keeps the dialogue end afloat and in many ways foreshadowed the similarly plotted The Wicker Man.

The Witches first came to DVD as an early Anchor Bay title in 2000 alongside a batch of other Hammer titles that had been out of circulation for quite a while. Apart from approximately one irreparably damaged minute of washed out source material 45 minutes in, the print was in excellent shape with solid colors and detail. The strong mono track perfectly accentuates the dark, percussive score by Richard Rodney Bennett, while dialogue is clear and free of distortion. The disc also includes the trailer for the film's release in the U.S. (where it bore the same title as its source novel, The Devil's Own), two TV spots, and the World of Hammer overview episode, "Wicked Women." The WitchesUnfortunately, like some of its companion releases like Frankenstein Created Woman, the DVDs tended to rot after about a year and were rendered The Witchesunplayable.

In 2013, Studio Canal bowed the film on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.K. in a sterling remastered edition featuring a much spacious and pleasing 1.66:1 presentation versus the cropped 1.78:1 DVD. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for the remastered English track, and the sole extra is that "Hammer Glamour" (44m9s) featurette that seemed to pop up all over the place (and seems a little odd in the context of this film). A much more generous U.S. Blu-ray followed in 2019 from Scream Factory, with the transfer looking virtually indistinguishable from its U.K. predecessor (which is good news). The "Hammer Glamour" piece is carried over here, but you also get the U.S. trailer and a B&W combo trailer (with Prehistoric Women) in sparkling HD along with a gallery of promotional stills and poster art. The big new extra here is an audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Ted Newsom, who does a thorough job of contextualizing this film with Hammer's other output around the time (particularly Plague of the Zombies), exploring the real identity of the source novel's pseudonymous author "Peter Curtis," and examining Fontaine's involvement with the project from the ground up as well as her very different interpretation of the role compared to the dowdy nature of the book's heroine.


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Updated review on May 29, 2019.