Joan Fontaine is one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s golden age; at the height of her career in the 1940s she was a huge star excelling in the kind of melodramas that earned her multiple award nominations. We almost certainly remember her from the Alfred Hitchcock classics Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), the latter securing her the only Academy Award won for a Hitchcock performance. By the 60s, however, Hollywood being notoriously limited in roles for the more mature lady, she was finding film work harder to come by and admirably took the matter into her own hands securing the rights to 'The Devil's Own' by Norah Lofts (writing under the pseudonym Peter Curtis). The concept found its way to the Hammer Studios which resulted in it being brought to the screen in 1966 under the title The Witches.
The Witches introduces us to Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) who in the opening sequence is working as a teacher in a small school in Africa. Unfortunately the locals are not taking too kindly to her presence and following a frightening encounter (for ‘frightening encounter’ read ‘man in mask gives nice lady a bit of a turn’) Gwen is forced out of Africa suffering from a nervous breakdown.
Back in jolly old England and feeling a bit better (probably after a cup of good old British tea) she’s ready to get her career back on track and secures herself a position as headmistress at a small rural school in the village of Haddaby. An appointment made all the more remarkable considering when we see Gwen being interviewed for the position when questioned about her time in Africa she clearly exhibits some disturbing indicators of mental instability which you would think wouldn’t be desirable for such a responsible role, but apparently they are fine and she gets the job anyway. Go the British education system! The school in question is owned by wealthy locals Alan and Stephanie Bax (Alec McGowan and Kay Walsh), Gwen seems happy enough with her new employers although it does transpire that Alan likes to impersonate a priest and march about the countryside, but if he can overlook her borderline mental problems she really can’t complain.
Initially life in Haddaby looks set to be idyllic; Gwen has her own quaint country cottage, she’s back on familiar ground in quiet village school and after initial trepidation she’s even beginning to become friends with lady of the manor and academic Stephanie Bax. But, under the picturesque exterior, things in Haddaby are not as uneventful as they seem. Gwen is slightly concerned about some odd behaviours amongst certain members of her class and following a minor parental to do regarding the relationship between a boy and the odd girl in her class , Gwen begins to feel even more unnerved as she witnesses further unusual behaviour in Haddaby residents, and when before long the boy falls into a coma and she happens across a doll filled with pins things begin to ring with an eerie familiarity and she begins to fear the practice of witchcraft might still be alive in Haddaby. Blimey, or, to paraphrase Bruce Willis in Die Hard II, how can the same shit happen to same woman twice?! Given her experiences in Africa and her already slightly fragile mental state, Gwen’s perspective of goings on could certainly be considered questionable, but nonetheless she throws herself into polite investigation of events, a course of action that will ultimately sees her buffeted on a tumultuous wave of conspiracy and her own dubious sanity.
Although The Witches may be a slightly unimpressive, meandering and strangely sexless entry into the Hammer cannon, Joan Fontaine works hard in her role, a role that would turn out to be her last theatrical film appearance, and that alone makes it worth investigating. The extraordinary performance put in by Ms. Fontaine’s hair should also be commended. The Witches may not demonstrate the fortitude to stand up against similar Hammer ventures of the period, Devil Rides Out, for instance, but it’s a reasonably enjoyable foray into the rural occult nonetheless. An interest in contemporary dance may also increase your viewing pleasure.