The Witches aka The Devil’s Own – UK, 1966

‘What do The Devil’s Own do after dark?’

The Witches is a 1966 British horror feature film directed by Cyril Frankel (Never Take Sweets from a Stranger). It was adapted by Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass films; Beasts; Halloween III) from a novel by Norah Lofts, using the pseudonym Peter Curtis. The Hammer Films-Seven Arts production stars Joan Fontaine (in her final feature film performance), Alec McCowen, Kay Walsh, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Duncan Lamont and Leonard Rossiter.

In the US, the film was released by 20th Century Fox as The Devil’s Own, the title of Lofts’ novel. The score was composed by Richard Rodney Bennett (The Nanny).

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The Witches will be released on by Scream Factory on Blu-ray on March 19, 2019. It will feature a reversible sleeve with The Devil’s Own title theatrical artwork on the other side. Extras will be announced nearer the release date.

Plot:

A British schoolteacher (Joan Fontaine) has a nervous breakdown after being exposed to witchcraft during a rebellion led by witch doctors while teaching as a missionary in Africa.

In an effort to recover, on her return to England, she is hired by a wealthy brother and sister (Alec McCowan and Kay Walsh) to become head teacher of their small private school in a rural village.

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Gwen soon detects a sinister undercurrent beneath the pleasantries of the village life, starting with Alan admitting to Gwen that he is not really a priest. Soon more suspicious events start to occur, such as the disappearance and reappearance of a doll – found headless. There she also becomes suspicious of the way the villagers are treating a fourteen year-old girl (Ingrid Boulting); her investigations point to witchcraft…

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Review:

The Witches is a minor Hammer film, but an interesting one nevertheless. Fontaine gives an impressive performance, managing to be highly strung without become hysterical as the sense of conspiracy slowly but relentlessly increases. When she has a breakdown and loses her memory, the film takes an interesting turn – from this point on, it never quite goes in the direction you might expect.

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Nigel Kneale‘s screenplay thankfully avoids the clichés of the paranoid thriller for the most part, instead inventing a few interesting twists as Miss Mayfield’s suspicions grow. She, like the viewer, is kept guessing by a series of often contradictory events and behaviours, and it’s only in the final act that everything starts to come together.

David Flint, HORRORPEDIA

Other reviews:

“Genteel horror story with little in the way of surprise, given the talent involved.” Howard Maxford, The A – Z of Horror Films

“There’s also an appalling (and distinctly 60s British) devil worshipping “orgy” where everyone keeps their clothes on … which is followed by what looks like a drama class warm-up routine, but, we’re reliably informed, is some kind of Sabbat. Considering the kind of stuff Hammer was busy churning out at the time (Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile), what were they thinking of?” British Horror Films

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Joan Fontaine is the sole interest in this dull Hammer blend of voodoo and satanism. Nigel Kneale’s script (based on a Peter Curtis novel is talk talk talk and the minimal action comes at the climax during an attempted sacrifice.” John Stanley, Creature Features

“In its first half the film is actually quite brilliant – with an air of mystery gradually unfolding, and some great humorous touches and a very intelligent, adult feel to the whole thing. Unfortunately … the entire film is deflated by a ludicrous final sequence…” Dellamorte’s Disco Dichotomy

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Director Cyril Frankel …uses his small screen skills to keep the story as low key as Kneale’s script, which allows tension and paranoia to develop through the characters. To do this, you need good acting, and Fontaine and Walsh are superb. The true stand-out, however, is Alec McGowen…” Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear, An Illustrated History of British Horror Films

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“Chintzy horror with predictable development and risible climax.” Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide

One of the movie’s few high points is the lovely village, but this is supposed to be Hammer horror, not a travelogue.” Tom Johnson, Deborah Del Vecchio, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography

“unsettling, though compromised by a hysterical climax … when The Witches strikes the right balance it ultimately succeeds as an engrossing thriller, even if it ultimately disappoints as Hammer horror.” Alan Barnes, Marcus Hearn, The Hammer Story: The Authorised Biography of Hammer Films

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“The script is good and the settings are Hammer at their most proficient. But, despite some excellent performances, the flat direction and un-atmospheric cinematography make less of the film’s terrors.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

The Witches is rather tame and sedate as Hammer’s films go and almost never ventures into shock territory, but Cyril Frankel delivers it with a fair hand and it works with modest effect. The film’s biggest disappointment is its ending, which offers up a wholly routine instant deus ex machina means of stopping the evil and restoring the status quo of the sleepy village.” Moria

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“If you have the patience for the slow buildup, you’ll find more action and several surprises in the second half. The Black Mass, when it finally comes. goes on for a while. But viewers may find the conclusion disappointing, either from the awkwardness of the Black Mass or from several gaps in logic.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

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… an unequivocal disaster. The star, Joan Fontaine, made life extremely difficult for Hammer, complaining to whomever would listen that they were unprofessional, the production amateurish and subsequently blaming them for ruining her career.” David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror

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“Apparently Fontaine brought the novel The Devil’s Own to Hammer, which could explain why, with its cheery parochial tone, it’s so out of synch with the studio’s late 1960s output. If it had been made in the 1950s, the mock tribal dancing and the teenage girl writhing on an altar might have seemed exciting.” Gerald Lea, The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films 1960 – 1969

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“Possessing both an unnerving sense of calm, some quite startling visuals (the sacrifice dressed as a weird doll, writhing on the floor) and a gentle but effective lead role, The Witches deserves far more praise than it often gets.  Its main comparison is obviously Hammer’s two Dennis Wheatley adaptations but, with that added sense of conspiracy and isolation, The Witches is arguably just as strong a film.” Adam Scovell, The Spooky Isles

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“The first three quarters of the film are very engrossing as Fontaine’s character attempts to uncover the town’s secrets. The final quarter deteriorates somewhat when the sacrificial ritual begins to resemble a jazz dance class filled with particularly untalented students. And is it my imagination, or does the rather butch Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), leader of the witches’ coven, seem to have designs on Miss Mayfield?” Gary A. Smith, Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956 – 1976

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Cast and characters:

  • Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield
  • Kay Walsh as Stephanie Bax
  • Alec McCowen as Alan Bax
  • Ann Bell as Sally Benson
  • Ingrid Boulting as Linda Rigg (as Ingrid Brett)
  • John Collin as Dowsett
  • Michele Dotrice as Valerie Creek
  • Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Granny Rigg
  • Duncan Lamont as Bob Curd
  • Leonard Rossiter as Dr. Wallis
  • Martin Stephens as Ronnie Dowsett
  • Carmel McSharry as Mrs. Dowsett
  • Viola Keats as Mrs. Curd
  • Shelagh Fraser as Mrs. Creek
  • Bryan Marshall as Tom

Filming locations:

Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, England – also used for The Legacy (1978) and Sleepy Hollow (1999).
Bray Studios, Berkshire, England

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