Released in 1966 by Hammer Films and directed by Cyril Frankel (“On The Fiddle”, “The Trygon Factor”) is the occult horror film “The Witches”.
Based on the Peter Curtis novel “The Devil’s Own”, the rights were apparently bought by the actress Joan Fontaine (“Suspicion”, “Rebecca”) and taken to Hammer for Fontaine’s final big-screen role.
Gwen Mayfield (played by Fontaine) is a British schoolteacher working as a missionary in Africa
who suffers a nervous breakdown after an encounter with a witch doctor during a local tribal rebellion. Returning to England she accepts the position of headteacher at a small school in the fictional village of Heddaby, hired by the Reverend Alan Bax and his sister Stephanie.
When she arrives and is greeted by Stephanie (Kay Walsh – “The Beauty Jungle”, “A Study In Terror”) she is somewhat disconcerted to discover that the Reverend Bax is actually just plain old Alan (Alec McCowen – “Frenzy”, “The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner”) – a man who likes to dress up as a vicar and listen to tapes of church organ music – and that the village church is no more than ruins.
It’s not long before Gwen is noticing that things just don’t seem right in the village – strange dolls, spooky black cats, decidedly odd residents etc. – and she is disturbed by the apparent treatment being given to one of her pupils, fourteen year old Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting – “The Last Tycoon”). Is there something sinister going on in this peaceful village or is Gwen still traumatized by her experience in Africa?…
This is one of the lesser celebrated Hammer films, but should really be regarded similarly to the likes of 1968’s “The Devil Rides Out”. There is also a case for making comparisons with the classic “The Wicker Man” which came seven years after this early example of what could be termed “folk horror”.