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The Witches
IMDB Rating: 5.9/10 from 1,518 votes
Release: 9 December 1966 (UK) /

The Witches

Genre: Horror
Director: Cyril Frankel,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: An English school teacher outposted in Africa has a run in with the local witch doctor and suffers a nervous breakdown. After recovering back in England she takes a job teaching in a small country town hoping to make a new start for herself. All goes well at first, until she starts to hear some disturbing stories about the town. She soon discovers the town is home to a coven of witches and they plan to sacrifice a local girl in one of their rituals. Written by Kevin Steinhauer <K.Steinhauer@BoM.GOV.AU>

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Critic Reviews

The Witches, which is much better known in America by its US release title The Devil's Own, is one of those legendary films made great because the supporting actress completely upstages the star. (Think Grayson Hall in Night of the Iguana, or Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy.) In her autobiography, Miss Joan Fontaine, who had acquired the film rights to the novel years before, complains at length about the "primitive" working conditions at Hammer studios, the small size of her dressing room, the awful food and the unprofessional British actors she had to lower herself in working with. We all know that the real bee in her bonnet was that a movie she had basically designed as a vehicle for HER talents ended up being taken over by Miss Kay Walsh, a superb dancer and talented actress who had had an extensive career in films and theatre (check out her IMDB listing--you'll be impressed). Luckily Fontaine was (to her credit) too much of a pro herself to let her dissatisfaction show on screen. She turns in a credible performance as a woman teacher attempting to recover from a traumatic encounter with witch doctors in Africa by taking a slow, quiet gig in an apparently sleepy, quaint olde English village. Well, guess who rules the roost in this town? As the title clues you in, it's none other than ... the Witches!!!

As boss witch supreme Stephanie Bax, a character one of the reviewers of the time described as a "lesbian-like writer," Kay Walsh dominates the action from the moment she appears. Of all the various witch films of the Sixties, this one probably has the most realistic atmosphere and the most plausible plot. The traditional opposition between village wise women (capably embodied here by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Granny Riggs--be sure to keep an eye out for her stogie-chomping aristo witch in 1967's The Devil Rides Out) and the kind of ceremonial magician played by Miss Walsh is portrayed quite matter-of-factly in the script. The kind of witchcraft practiced both by the Walsh and the Ffrangcon-Davies characters is a pretty accurate portrayal of practices actually current in Sixties England, for instance in the circles around Robert Cochrane and other figures who were gaining a lot of media attention in those days. The campy elan of Miss Walsh's dances as High Priestess (one wonders how they dealt with all the hot wax that must have flown off the lit candles in that antler-crown of hers) is very London West End on one level, yet also seems a poetic evocation of a learned ceremonial magician taking over a traditional village circle for her own corrupt ends on another level. Excellent work by Miss Walsh and the choreographer.

Also worthy of mention is the appearance of Martin Stephens, who made memorable such earlier Sixties fantasy films as The Innocents and Village of the Damned (in which he had the unenviable task of acting opposite George Sanders--who hated children!). Martin retired from films shortly after appearing in the Witches. Among the others, Alec McCowen turns in a brilliant little gem of a performance as Kay Walsh's traumatized brother.

For all its excellence, Hammer historians give second place for this film to Don Sharp's 1964 outing, Witchcraft. Let's hope somebody hurries up and releases that one on home video soon!

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