Few things invoke autumn and the Halloween spirit in me as strongly as the stylized gothic horror films made by Hammer. The diversity and sheer volume of the studio’s output was impressive and this has occasionally led to some of their lesser-seen films being overlooked because they didn’t live up to critic’s expectations or they followed a less conventional path than many horror fans had become accustomed to. One of the most widely dismissed and misunderstood Hammer films is the occult thriller The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own; 1966) featuring the Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine in what would be her last starring film role. As a Hammer fan and a Fontaine admirer, I thought October would be the perfect month to share my appreciation and affection for The Witches.
Hammer is widely known for featuring beautiful, voluptuous, and scantily clad young women in many of their films. But the studio that “dripped blood” also employed some highly acclaimed actresses during its reign including Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Fontaine. In the 1960s Hollywood wasn’t particularly interested in giving these middle-aged women starring roles anymore even though the experienced starlets were still capable of carrying a movie on their own. As a result, their quests for worthwhile roles often resulted in them appearing in horror movies.
By 1965 Joan Fontaine was getting fed up with Hollywood’s lack of interest so the 48-year-old actress decided to take matters into her own hands. Fontaine purchased the rights to an unusual occult thriller called The Devil’s Own (also known as The Little Wax Doll) written by female author Norah Lofts (using the pen name Peter Curtis) and asked Hammer executives if they would be interested in making it into a movie if she was the star. The studio agreed.
Hammer hired Cyril Frankel (Never Take Sweets from a Stranger; 1960, Operation Snafu; 1961, The Executioner; 1975) to direct THE WITCHES and writer Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Xperiment; 1955, Look Back in Anger; 1959, The Entertainer; 1960) was asked to adapt Lofts’ book for the screen while the acclaimed composer Richard Rodney Bennett (Billy Liar; 1963, The Nanny; 1965, Far from the Madding Crowd; 1967) was brought on board to write the film’s score. Hammer worked closely with Fontaine throughout the production and invested a lot into publicity for the film but the project seemed cursed from the start. Writer Nigel Kneale had problems capturing the tone of the book and expressed a desire to turn it into a dark comedy because he couldn’t take the subject of witchcraft seriously at the time. He apparently felt that the ending of the film, featuring a witch’s coven performing a ritual, should be lighthearted instead of menacing and this is evident in the film. No one else involved with the picture agreed with Kneale’s ideas. These creative differences undoubtedly caused some tension on the set but the film was also plagued by other problems.
In the spring of 1965 Joan Fontaine flew to London to begin shooting The Witches and she took up residence in Vivian Leigh’s flat. The two actresses had decided to trade homes while they were working so when Fontaine was shooting The Witches in England, Vivian Leigh was performing in a stage adaptation of Ivanhoe on Broadway and living in Fontaine’s New York apartment. It was a smart arrangement but according to Joan Fontaine’s autobiography, No Bed of Roses things did not always go smoothly. Fontaine didn’t appreciate the maid that Vivian Leigh (or “Lady Olivier”) employed due to her lack of cleanliness but that was just a minor annoyance. Fontaine’s real problems began when she suddenly became seriously ill. Throughout the filming of The Witches, the actress was battling a fever and severe discomfort. She remained bed-ridden for long stretches at a time and was often confined to her dressing room, which led to a serious undisclosed gynecological operation immediately after shooting had ended. Her behavior on set must have confused and bothered many of the other cast members as well as the crew but Fontaine thought director Cyril Frankel was “a dream” to work with because he sympathized with what the actress was going through.
I’ve read many reviews and detailed accounts of the making of The Witches that casually accuse Joan Fontaine of being difficult to work with and blaming Hammer for “ending her career” but I haven’t found any evidence of that myself. In No Bed of Roses Fontaine does briefly complain that “I was ill again, homesick, and loathed the union’s grip on the studios: the deliberate delays, the mandatory coffee breaks which would interrupt every scene just as it was going well.” But that brief paragraph isn’t a condemnation or complete dismissal of Hammer and her kind regard for director Cyril Frankel seems at odds with the general consensus that Fontaine was miserable during filming despite her serious health problems. It’s entirely possible that I’m unaware of other accounts detailing what occurred during the making of The Witches but what’s on screen is more interesting than the behind-the-scenes drama.
The Witches centers around a schoolteacher named Gwen Mayland (Joan Fontaine) who has recently recovered from a severe breakdown caused by an encounter with a witch doctor while she was in Africa. The incident is artfully shown at the beginning of the film and it’s one of the movie’s many highlights. Gwen finds herself caught in the middle of a tribal dispute and although we never learn the full details of what happened to her it’s clear from the suspenseful opening that the experience was extremely unpleasant. Gwen desperately wants to get her life back on track and applies for a teaching job in a small isolated English village called Heddaby.
After she’s hired Gwen moves into a quaint cottage and attempts to familiarize herself with the local villagers and their way of life. She immediately encounters a young couple named Linda (Ingrid Boulting) and Ronnie (Martin Stephens) who are also students at the school where she teaches. Something doesn’t seem quite right with the pair and Gwen expresses disapproval of the doll that the teenage Linda carries around with her constantly. Gwen finally strikes up a friendship with young Ronnie in an effort to improve his education but her peace of mind is shattered when the villager’s superstitious way of life begins to have a chilling effect on the children. The strange behavior of the villagers brings back unpleasant memories of the witch doctors that Gwen encountered in Africa and she suspects that witchcraft might be being practiced in Heddaby. Is she losing her mind or has the town gone crazy? You’ll have to watch if you want to find out!
Even though The Witches is often forgotten about today I think it’s easy to spot its influence on popular British horror films such as The Devil Rides Out (1968), Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), Nothing But the Night (1973) and The Wicker Man (1973). But if you want to enjoy this neglected Hammer film you’ll have to set aside expectations and keep in mind that it’s more of an occult thriller than the horror films it inspired. The Witches approaches the subject of witchcraft in a very down-to-earth way that’s rather surprising and atypical of the period.
Throughout the film Fontaine’s character attempts to treat the topic of witchcraft with as much intelligence and understanding as she can muster and the audience is asked to be skeptical of the existence of witches at the same time that we’re being frightened by them. If this idea seems a little confusing that’s because it is. Hammer films rarely made a point of actively questioning religion or dismissing the existence of monsters. They had to embrace the supernatural in order to tell their fantastic stories and scare audiences. The suspenseful approach taken by The Witches is more reminiscent of the thrillers and gothic melodramas that Fontaine built her career on such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) as well as Robert Stevenson’s wonderful adaptation of Jane Eyre (1943). In these films, Fontaine mastered the role of a ladylike heroine who is capable of taking care of herself even when everyone around her seems to be planning her demise. Her sensitive and smart portrayals of women in peril cemented her star on Hollywood’s walk of fame and won her an Oscar.
Fontaine must have known what kind of parts she excelled at playing and many assumed that The Witches would be her big comeback. Her performance in the film is extremely nuanced and thoughtful. Even though the actress was very ill during the making of the movie she brings the same kind of sensitivity and vulnerability as well as brains and beauty to the role of Gwen Mayfield that she did to her roles in Rebecca and Jane Eyre. At age 48 Fontaine was still a lovely woman and her maturity definitely brought a level of sophistication to The Witches. Unfortunately, only a handful of critics seemed to agree with me so the movie slipped into obscurity. Fontaine continued to act in various television productions but she never made another film.
Besides Joan Fontaine in the starring role, THE WITCHES also features memorable performances from other talented actors. In particular, the venerable Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist; 1948, Stage Fright; 1950, Cast a Dark Shadow; 1955) stands out as a wealthy writer that befriends Gwen. Other memorable performances include Alec McCowen (A Night to Remember; 1958, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; 1962, Frenzy; 1972) as Walsh’s pious brother and British horror film regulars Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (The Devil Rides Out; 1968, The Burning; 1968) and Michele Dotrice (And Soon the Darkness; 1970, Blood On Satan’s Claw; 1971) are also extremely effective as simple-minded villagers that unsettle Gwen with their superstitious beliefs. Martin Stephens also delivers a smart performance as the teenage Ronnie. Stephens appeared in some of the best British horror and science fiction films made in the 1960s including Village of the Damned (1960) and The Innocents (1961) but just like his costar Joan Fontaine, THE WITCHES would, unfortunately, be the young actor’s last performance in a movie.
If any movie deserves the title of a “cursed” production it might be The Witches which seemed to put an end to the film careers of Fontaine as well as Stephens who retired from acting when filming ended.
Anchor Bay released The Witches on DVD but it’s currently out-of-print. You can still find new and used copies of the film selling at places like Amazon for a very reasonable price. You can also order a DVD-R copy of the film from Amazon but the quality is apparently much worse than Anchor Bay’s original DVD. The film isn’t currently scheduled to play on TCM anytime soon so I’m afraid you’ll have to purchase it or rent it from Netflix if you want to see it. If you’re a Joan Fontaine fan or interested in seeing one of the better movies about witchcraft made in the 1960s I highly recommend giving The Witches a look.
by Kimberly LIndbergs, originally written for TCM.com and published in October 2010