In her last appearance on the silver screen, Joan Fontaine, who won an Academy Award for her performance in Suspicion (1941), stars in this Hammer Studios release of The Witches (1967). While the material here is certainly not of the caliber of some of the previous films she's appeared in, it is fun to watch. Maybe I have some lurid fascination of seeing once great stars reduced to appearing in roles they probably would have never considered in their prime.
Joan plays Gwen Mayfield, a teacher who has just been accepted to assume a position as head teacher of a private school in a small English village. The film starts off with Gwen teaching at a mission school in Africa, and, after an incident with a native witch doctor that caused Gwen to have a nervous breakdown, she has now returned to England to put the pieces of her life back together.
After formally meeting with her employers, Alan and Stephanie Bax, played by Alec McCowen and Kay Walsh respectively, the well-to-do resident benefactors of the town who are also brother and sister, Gwen settles into her new surroundings. The situation seems idyllic, a nice, quiet position in a small town where little happens, but, as the saying goes, still waters sometimes run deep. The oddness begins when two of her pre-teen students, a boy and a very weird girl, exhibit closeness to each other, one borne of a budding romance. This causes consternation among some of the townspeople, and soon the boy falls ill of a mysterious coma. Apparently there was more than just a passing concern about what might happen if the relationship between these two continued, specifically in respect to the girl.
Rumors of witchery begin to reach Gwen, and the deeper she probes, the more ominous the proceedings. As the notion of witchery becomes more and more viable, the idea that there may be more than one witch, a coven, operating within the town, involving various members of the small village. Gwen soon finds herself at odds with unseen forces, and suffers a relapse, forcing her to be institutionalized. She has also lost her memory of everything that's transpired after leaving Africa. She does regain her memory, bits at a time, and the horror begins to return as she understands what is about to transpire, and rushes back to the town in an attempt to save the girl from an unknown fate, and ultimately learn that witchery is not limited to third world peoples but is alive and well here in this small, English village.
Joan Fontaine does a great job here, still exhibiting the sheen of a Hollywood star, even if some of that sheen has dulled since her prime. I have to say, even pushing 50 she still looked pretty good, despite the oddish, bowl bouffant she sported through most of the film. Fontaine's older sister, Olivia de Havilland, didn't fare as well, career wise, in my opinion, starring in dubious films like Lady in a Cage (1964), and Irwin Allen 70's disaster pics like Airport '77 (1977) and The Swarm (1978). The creepy factor develops nicely as the film progresses, and as the mystery deepens about who's involved in the coven and what their purpose is, but this is soon replaced by a goofy factor as we see the coven in action, performing a ritual, half-nekkid dance of sorts in a decrepit, abandoned church, eating greasy dirt as their leader spouts incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo while clad in colorful robes and donning a crown with birthday candles adorning the top. I kept waiting for someone to make a wish and blow out the candles, but the others were to busy bumping and grinding to their chanting, and, as I said before, masticating the mud.
Anchor Bay Entertainment releases a great print, in wide screen anamorphic format. Special features include a theatrical trailer, television promotional spots and a World of Hammer episode titled Wicked Women. Also included in the DVD case on the flipside of the card listing the chapter stops is a reproduction of promotional material used for the film. I really find much enjoyment in these little touches, as it seems to indicate thought was actually put into the release, and a sense that one's getting their money's worth, even though this release seems a bit pricey.