‘The Witches’ is a bit of a missed opportunity, but it has some interesting moments which remind you that Nigel Kneale was behind the original adaptation, although, in a familiar story, the producers buffed off the awkward edges that would potentially have been the best bits.
Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a school teacher who is recovering from a nervous breakdown from her time in Africa, where she pissed off the local witch doctor and had a bit of a voodoo nightmare. Still fragile, she relocates to the quiet village of Heddaby, expecting a nice, sorcery free life. Unfortunately for her, the bucolic hamlet is actually a hotbed of witchcraft, white and black, and, before you can say ‘Hail Satan!’ she finds herself under threat from the local coven.
Kneale’s original screenplay apparently satirised the notion of modern day witches (he saw them as a self-indulgent, rather pathetic anachronism in the 20th century) but there’s none of that sharp, bitter humour in the film. Instead, it’s played dead straight and, unfortunately, dead slow, only really sparking into life in the coven scenes when we are presented with the spectacle of a dozen middle aged character actors stomping around trying to convey being lost in a reverie to the dark, ancient forces that have possessed them.
The relationship between Kneale and Hammer is one of the big ‘what it?’ stories of British genre cinema: Kneale had the material, Hammer the means of production but their collaborations were limited to adaptations of work either originally written by Kneale for TV or, in the case of ‘The Witches’ from another writer. I’m hugely grateful for the Hammer Quatermass films, and ‘The Abominable Snowman’ (I’m even grateful for ‘The Witches’) but the thought of what Hammer could have done with, say, ‘The Road’, ‘The Stone Tape’ or even ‘1984’is a mouth watering one – and it’s a huge shame that it never came to pass.