“Nothing can eat your soul!”

I must begin this with a confession. I’m obsessed with Hammer films. I love the “Studio That Dripped Blood” unconditionally so I was thrilled to learn that TCM was planning on showing Hammer films every Friday evening during the month of October. I was even more excited when I was told that The Movie Morlocks were planning a Hammer Blogathon to celebrate the event. Few things seem to invoke autumn and the Halloween spirit in me as strongly as the stylized gothic horror films made by Hammer. The diversity and sheer volume of the studio’s output was extremely impressive and this has occasionally led to some of their lesser seen films being overlooked because they didn’t live up to critic’s expectations or they followed a less conventional path than many horror fans had become accustomed to. One of the most widely dismissed and misunderstood Hammer films is the occult thriller THE WITCHES (aka The Devil’s Own; 1966) featuring the Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine in what would be her last starring film role. As a Hammer fan and a Fontaine admirer I thought this weeklong blogathon would be the perfect time to share my appreciation and affection for THE WITCHES.

Hammer is widely known for featuring beautiful, voluptuous and scantily clad young women in many of their movies. But the studio also employed some highly acclaimed actresses including Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Fontaine. In the 1960s Hollywood wasn’t interested in giving these aging women starring roles anymore even though they were more than capable of carrying a movie on their own, so the middle-aged starlets looked for worthwhile roles in unexpected places and often found themselves starring in horror movies. By 1965 Joan Fontaine was undoubtedly getting fed up with Hollywood’s lack of interest so the 48-year-old actress decided to take matters into her own hands. Fontaine purchased the rights to an unusual occult thriller called The Devil’s Own (also known as The Little Wax Doll) written by female author Norah Lofts (using the pen name Peter Curtis) and asked Hammer executives if they would be interested in making the movie if she starred in it. The studio agreed.

Hammer hired Cyril Frankel (Never Take Sweets from a Stranger; 1960, Operation Snafu; 1961, The Executioner; 1975, etc.) to direct THE WITCHES and writer Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Xperiment; 1955, The Abominable Snowman; 1957, Look Back in Anger; 1959, The Entertainer; 1960, First Men in the Moon; 1964, etc.) was asked to adapt Norah Lofts’ book for the screen. The talented composer Richard Rodney Bennett (The Man Who Could Cheat Death; 1959, Billy Liar; 1963, The Nanny; 1965, Far from the Madding Crowd; 1967, Secret Ceremony; 1968) was also brought on board to score the movie. Hammer worked closely with Joan Fontaine and invested a lot into publicity for the film but the project seemed cursed from the start. Writer Nigel Kneale had problems capturing the tone of the book and he expressed a desire to turn it into a dark comedy because he couldn’t take the subject of witchcraft seriously. Kneale particularly felt that the ending of the film, featuring a witch’s coven performing a ritual, should be lighthearted instead of menacing and this is unfortunately still evident in the film. No one else involved with the picture agreed with Kneale’s ideas and this may have caused some tension on the set. These creative differences undoubtedly hampered the shoot but it was also plagued by other problems

In the spring of 1965 Joan Fontaine flew to London to begin shooting THE WITCHES and she took up residence in Vivian Leigh’s flat. The two actresses had decided to trade homes while they were working so when Fontaine was shooting THE WITCHES in England, Vivian Leigh was performing in a stage adaptation of Ivanhoe on Broadway and living in Fontaine’s New York apartment. It was a smart arrangement but according to Joan Fontaine’s autobiography No Bed of Roses things did not go smoothly. Fontaine didn’t appreciate the maid that Vivian Leigh (or “Lady Olivier”) employed due to her lack of cleanliness but that was just a minor annoyance. Joan Fontaine’s real problems began when she suddenly became seriously ill. Throughout the filming of THE WITCHES the actress was battling a fever and severe discomfort. She remained bed-ridden for long stretches at a time and was often confined to her dressing room, which led to a serious gynecological operation immediately after shooting had ended. Her behavior on set must have confused and bothered many of the other cast members as well as the crew but Joan Fontaine thought director Cyril Frankel was “a dream” to work with. He clearly expressed concern and sympathized with what the actress was going through.

I’ve read many reviews and detailed accounts of the making of THE WITCHES that casually accuse Joan Fontaine of being very difficult to work with and blaming Hammer for “ending her career” but I haven’t found any evidence of that myself. In No Bed of Roses Fontaine does briefly complain that “I was ill again, homesick, and loathed the union’s grip on the studios: the deliberate delays, the mandatory coffee breaks which would interrupt every scene just as it was going well.” But that brief paragraph isn’t a condemnation or complete dismissal of Hammer and her kind regard for director Cyril Frankel seems at odds with the general consensus that Fontaine was miserable during filming despite, or possibly because of, her health problems. It’s entirely possible that I’m unaware of other accounts detailing the behind-the scenes drama that occurred during the making of THE WITCHES but what’s on screen is much more interesting.

THE WITCHES centers around a schoolteacher named Gwen Mayland (Joan Fontaine) who has recently recovered from a severe breakdown caused by an encounter with a witch doctor while she was in Africa teaching. The incident is artfully shown at the beginning of the film and it’s one of the movie’s many highlights. Gwen finds herself caught in the middle of tribal dispute and although we never learn the full details of what happened to her it’s clear from the suspenseful opening that the experience was extremely unpleasant. Gwen desperately wants to get her life back on track and applies for a teaching job in a small isolated English village called Heddaby. After she’s hired Gwen moves into a quaint cottage and attempts to familiarize herself with the local villagers and their way of life. She immediately encounters a young couple named Linda (Ingrid Boulting) and Ronnie (Martin Stephens) who are also students at the school where she teaches. Something doesn’t seem quite right with the pair and Gwen expresses disapproval of the doll that the teenage Linda carries around with her constantly. Gwen finally strikes up a friendship with young Ronnie in an effort to improve his education but her peace of mind is soon shattered when the villager’s superstitious way of life begins to have a chilling effect on the children. The strange behavior of the villagers brings back unpleasant memories of the witch doctors that Gwen encountered in Africa and she suspects that witchcraft might be being practiced in Heddaby. Is Gwen loosing her mind or has the town gone crazy? You’ll have to watch THE WITCHES if you want to find out the answer to that question.

Even though THE WITCHES is often forgotten about today I think its easy to spot its influence on popular British horror films like The Devil Rides Out (1968), Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) so if you like those films you might also find that THE WITCHES is well worth a your time. But if you want to enjoy the film you’ll have to set aside expectations and keep in mind that THE WITCHES is more of a thriller than the horror films it inspired. THE WITCHES tackles the belief in witchcraft in a very down-to-earth and realistic way that’s rather surprising for a Hammer film. Throughout the film Joan Fontaine’s character attempts to treat the topic with as much intelligence and understanding as she can muster and the audience is asked to be skeptical of the existence of witches at the same time that we’re being frightened by them. If this idea seems a little confusing that’s because it is. Hammer films rarely made a point of actively questioning religion or dismissing the existence of monsters. They had to embrace the supernatural in order to tell their fantastic stories and scare audiences. The suspenseful approach taken by THE WITCHES is more reminiscent of the thrillers and gothic melodramas that Joan Fontaine appeared in early in her career such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) as well as Robert Stevenson’s wonderful adaptation of Jane Eyre (1943). In these films Joan Fontaine mastered the role of a ladylike heroine who is capable of taking care of herself even when everyone around her seems to be planning her demise. Her sensitive and smart portrayals of women in peril cemented her star on Hollywood’s walk of fame and won her an Oscar so it’s exciting to watch the actress return to a similar kind of role in THE WITCHES.

Joan Fontaine must have known what kind of parts she excelled at playing and many assumed that THE WITCHES would be her big comeback. Her performance in the film is extremely nuanced and thoughtful. Even though the actress was very ill during the making of the movie she brings the same kind of sensitivity and vulnerability as well as brains and beauty to the role of Gwen Mayfield that she did to her roles in Rebecca and Jane Eyre. At age 48 Joan Fontaine was still a lovely woman and her maturity definitely brought a level of sophistication to THE WITCHES. Unfortunately only a handful of critics seemed to agree with me so the movie slipped into obscurity. Joan Fontaine continued to act in various television productions but she never made another film.

Besides Joan Fontaine in the starring role, THE WITCHES also features memorable performances from other talented actors. In particular the venerable Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist; 1948, Stage Fright; 1950, Cast a Dark Shadow; 1955, A Study in Terror; 1965) stands out as a wealthy writer that befriends Joan Fontaine’s character. Other memorable performance include Alec McCowen (A Night to Remember; 1958 , The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; 1962 , Frenzy; 1972) as Kay Walsh’s pious brother and British horror film regulars Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (The Devil Rides Out; 1968, The Burning; 1968) and Michele Dotrice (And Soon the Darkness; 1970, Blood On Satan’s Claw; 1971) are also extremely effective as simple-minded villagers that unsettle Gwen Mayfield with their superstitious beliefs. Martin Stephens also delivers a smart performance as the teenage Ronnie. Stephens appeared in some of the best British horror and science fiction films made in the ’60s including Village of the Damned (1960) and The Innocents (1961) but just like his costar Joan Fontaine, THE WITCHES would unfortunately be the young actors last performance in a movie. Martin Stephens retired from acting after filming ended.

Anchor Bay released THE WITCHES on DVD but it’s currently out-of-print. You can still find new and used copies of the movie selling at places like Amazon for a very reasonable price. You can also order a a DVD-R copy of the film from Amazon but the quality is apparently much worse than Anchor Bay’s original DVD. Tthe film isn’t currently scheduled to play on TCM anytime soon so I’m afraid you’ll have to purchase it or rent it from Netflix if you want to see it. If you’re a Joan Fontaine fan or interested in seeing one of the better movies about witchcraft made in the ’60s I recommend giving THE WITCHES a look.

24 Responses “Nothing can eat your soul!”
Posted By Mysterio : October 7, 2010 4:57 pm

I agree! I think the “Witches” is a very high quality horror film. Very realistic and I like how there is a very psychological angle to the movie. Is it really the magic or is it the characters’ subconscious minds at work? Fans of “Night of the Eagle” a.k.a. “Burn Witch! Burn!” will also enjoy this film although in the “Witches” the psychological angle functions a bit more sublimely. In “Night of the Eagle” the theme of psychology vs. occult forces is addressed in a manner more central to the plot. I would say the only flaw to “The Witches” is that sometimes the pacing is a bit slow. Otherwise I love this movie. One of my all time favorite horror films. Joan Fontaine does a fine job. She gets to play a more assertive role in this film. Her character although somewhat vulnerable (due to the fact she is recovering from a breakdown) is a very sypathetic one and very likeable yet also gets to show a fair amount of courage. Ms. Fontaine also looks quite beautiful in her middle-aged years. So if your a fan of good horror films or a fan of Ms. Fontaine you’ll like this one.

Posted By Mysterio : October 7, 2010 4:57 pm

I agree! I think the “Witches” is a very high quality horror film. Very realistic and I like how there is a very psychological angle to the movie. Is it really the magic or is it the characters’ subconscious minds at work? Fans of “Night of the Eagle” a.k.a. “Burn Witch! Burn!” will also enjoy this film although in the “Witches” the psychological angle functions a bit more sublimely. In “Night of the Eagle” the theme of psychology vs. occult forces is addressed in a manner more central to the plot. I would say the only flaw to “The Witches” is that sometimes the pacing is a bit slow. Otherwise I love this movie. One of my all time favorite horror films. Joan Fontaine does a fine job. She gets to play a more assertive role in this film. Her character although somewhat vulnerable (due to the fact she is recovering from a breakdown) is a very sypathetic one and very likeable yet also gets to show a fair amount of courage. Ms. Fontaine also looks quite beautiful in her middle-aged years. So if your a fan of good horror films or a fan of Ms. Fontaine you’ll like this one.

Posted By Morlock Jeff : October 7, 2010 5:03 pm

Too bad Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland weren’t in a horror film together but I guess their lives together was the real horror story.

Posted By Morlock Jeff : October 7, 2010 5:03 pm

Too bad Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland weren’t in a horror film together but I guess their lives together was the real horror story.

Posted By Wings1295 : October 7, 2010 5:58 pm

Just added it to my Netflix queue on your recommendation. Can’t wait.

Posted By Wings1295 : October 7, 2010 5:58 pm

Just added it to my Netflix queue on your recommendation. Can’t wait.

Posted By Jenni : October 7, 2010 10:34 pm

This sounds like a must-see to me. I’ve never heard of this movie, but know that Joan Fontaine was a fine actress, and I recognized that teen boy immediately as the child actor from The Innocents. Thanks for the write-up!

Posted By Jenni : October 7, 2010 10:34 pm

This sounds like a must-see to me. I’ve never heard of this movie, but know that Joan Fontaine was a fine actress, and I recognized that teen boy immediately as the child actor from The Innocents. Thanks for the write-up!

Posted By Muir Hewitt : October 8, 2010 10:18 am

I haven’t seen this movie but would love to as I’m a fan of the great movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I never heard the story of the feud ( and what caused it? ) between the sisters Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine what a pity they can’t bury the hatchet after all these years!

Posted By Muir Hewitt : October 8, 2010 10:18 am

I haven’t seen this movie but would love to as I’m a fan of the great movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I never heard the story of the feud ( and what caused it? ) between the sisters Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine what a pity they can’t bury the hatchet after all these years!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2010 12:28 pm

Jeff – It is a shame. I would have enjoyed seeing Joan & Olivia in their own version of something like WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Wings – Thanks and I hope you enjoy it!

Muir – If you’re a Fontaine fan THE WITCHES is well worth a look and it would make for some fun Halloween viewing. It is a shame that the sisters still haven’t made peace but I’ve seen life long family feuds play out in my own family (sadly). Both sisters are in their ’90s now. Maybe TCM should try an intervention? Invite them both to the next TCM Classic Film Festival and see if they’d be willing to kiss and make up on stage in front of the cameras? I’d love to see that!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2010 12:28 pm

Jeff – It is a shame. I would have enjoyed seeing Joan & Olivia in their own version of something like WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Wings – Thanks and I hope you enjoy it!

Muir – If you’re a Fontaine fan THE WITCHES is well worth a look and it would make for some fun Halloween viewing. It is a shame that the sisters still haven’t made peace but I’ve seen life long family feuds play out in my own family (sadly). Both sisters are in their ’90s now. Maybe TCM should try an intervention? Invite them both to the next TCM Classic Film Festival and see if they’d be willing to kiss and make up on stage in front of the cameras? I’d love to see that!

Posted By Foulard : October 8, 2010 2:06 pm

I recently watched this again. It’s a nice creepy little film, even if the final dramatic scene is a failure. It’s a nice sister film to Burn Witch Burn (aka Night of the Eagle), and also Witchcraft (with Lon Chaney).

For anyone with a multi-region DVD player, you can pick up the British DVD for about six bucks at Amazon UK.

I think this is one case where the US title is better than the British, especially since it’s the title of the original novel.

Posted By Foulard : October 8, 2010 2:06 pm

I recently watched this again. It’s a nice creepy little film, even if the final dramatic scene is a failure. It’s a nice sister film to Burn Witch Burn (aka Night of the Eagle), and also Witchcraft (with Lon Chaney).

For anyone with a multi-region DVD player, you can pick up the British DVD for about six bucks at Amazon UK.

I think this is one case where the US title is better than the British, especially since it’s the title of the original novel.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2010 5:41 pm

Mysterio -It’s always nice to hear from other fans of a movie you like so thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love BURN WITCH BURN and I think it’s a better conceived film than THE WITCHES but they would make a nice double feature. It’s a shame that the writer of THE WITCHES didn’t take the project a bit more seriously.

Jenni – If you like Fontaine and Stephens I think you’ll enjoy this. As I mentioned in my piece, the film seemed somewhat cursed and the worst part about THE WITCHES is that it was Fontaine and Stephens last movie. It’s a shame they didn’t continue to act in films.

Foulard – It’s great to see more fans of BURN WITCH BURN coming out of the woodwork. It’s a fantastic film! I recently got myself a copy of the PAL DVD and I plan on watching it soon since I’ve only seen it on video.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 8, 2010 5:41 pm

Mysterio -It’s always nice to hear from other fans of a movie you like so thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love BURN WITCH BURN and I think it’s a better conceived film than THE WITCHES but they would make a nice double feature. It’s a shame that the writer of THE WITCHES didn’t take the project a bit more seriously.

Jenni – If you like Fontaine and Stephens I think you’ll enjoy this. As I mentioned in my piece, the film seemed somewhat cursed and the worst part about THE WITCHES is that it was Fontaine and Stephens last movie. It’s a shame they didn’t continue to act in films.

Foulard – It’s great to see more fans of BURN WITCH BURN coming out of the woodwork. It’s a fantastic film! I recently got myself a copy of the PAL DVD and I plan on watching it soon since I’ve only seen it on video.

Posted By Foulard : October 8, 2010 6:43 pm

Whoops–I didn’t realize Mysterioso had already addressed Burn Witch Burn! (oddly, another where I think the US title is better)

Posted By Foulard : October 8, 2010 6:43 pm

Whoops–I didn’t realize Mysterioso had already addressed Burn Witch Burn! (oddly, another where I think the US title is better)

Posted By suzidoll : October 8, 2010 9:43 pm

Joan Fontaine may have been ill but she looks pretty good in the film stills. There are so many British films (in many genres) that are about bad experiences at boarding school. Must be a traumatic issue in that culture.

Posted By suzidoll : October 8, 2010 9:43 pm

Joan Fontaine may have been ill but she looks pretty good in the film stills. There are so many British films (in many genres) that are about bad experiences at boarding school. Must be a traumatic issue in that culture.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : October 28, 2010 7:13 pm

[...] occasionally airs here. The film would make a great triple feature with The Wicker Man (1973) and The Witches (1966), which I discussed earlier this month. All three films explore similar occult themes [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : October 28, 2010 7:13 pm

[...] occasionally airs here. The film would make a great triple feature with The Wicker Man (1973) and The Witches (1966), which I discussed earlier this month. All three films explore similar occult themes [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : December 2, 2010 3:54 pm

[...] I’ve mentioned before, I’m rather obsessed with Hammer movies and I’ve been a fan of the “Studio That Dripped [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : December 2, 2010 3:54 pm

[...] I’ve mentioned before, I’m rather obsessed with Hammer movies and I’ve been a fan of the “Studio That Dripped [...]

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