When you think of witches, your mind will conjure up any number of images as they have been represented in numerous ways throughout the years in various forms of media. In this Hammer film, there is no Harry Potter, no Roald Dahl insanity and no women with tall, pointy black hats. Here, it is your average, unassuming witch, perhaps the most dangerous kind, the one you do not see coming. You might suspect something, but you would not know for sure and by that point in time that you do, it would be too late. Released in 1966, The Witches, or The Devil’s Own as it was known in the United States, features just such a storyline, sort of. As in most Hammer films, good always wins out in the end, though it is not without a struggle.
Joan Fontaine would star in this modest little horror picture that would see her take on a new teaching position in a little village, a job that she really loves, but one that is starting to show cracks in the surface as strange things begin to happen. Having already survived an ordeal in Africa involving witchcraft, her mind automatically goes to that place and she starts to investigate to find out if her suspicions are correct. Fontaine would do an admirable job in the lead role, though it would have been nice if the writer and the producers of the film would have made her a stronger woman, instead of one that is so easily broken. Sure, Fontaine has her moment in the end, perhaps redeeming herself for all the times she failed, but the movie really pictured her character as weak. She was a little interesting with her background in having survived her previous ordeal, but when you see her later, she seems frail, like her sanity could pop at any second; it is only with the addition of the new job that she starts to find some stability, which does not last for long. Fontaine does ultimately bring a lot to the role, and she is one of the best things about the movie.
The film itself was quite the slow-burner. The pacing was dreadfully sluggish compared to other Hammer films of the time and while a slow burn is nice once and a while, this film just felt like it was padded out a bit too much. Writer Nigel Kneale and director Cyril Frankel did a good job with the material, but as a whole, the film was fairly unexciting. The parts of the movie which were supposed to convey horror only did so in a very mild way. The scariest part was the fact that these witches lived among Fontaine’s character and she had absolutely no idea. Fear of the unknown is always a frightening aspect that can be used to good effect, and it was here, but the actual witchcraft scenes were simply a little silly. The cinematography by Arthur Grant was quite good, as it gave this sleepy little village that quiet air needed to perpetuate that unknown quantity. It just would have been a lot better and a lot more effective a picture with some actual scares.
On the whole, the film was okay. The Witches worked as a movie, but it worked better as more of a dramatic picture with elements of suspense than anything else. It was not as good as many of Hammer’s other horrors, this one perhaps being just a bit too subtle to truly work effectively in this particular genre. It had an intriguing premise, and it was not really terrible, but it could have been so much better.
3 out of 5