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  Witches, The Rough In The CovenBuy this film here.
Year: 1966
Director: Cyril Frankel
Stars: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell, Ingrid Boulting, John Collin, Michele Dotrice, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Duncan Lamont, Leonard Rossiter, Martin Stephens, Carmel McSharry, Viola Keats, Shelagh Fraser, Bryan Marshall, Rudolph Walker
Genre: Horror
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: When she was in Africa, schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) was faced with the local tribalism, and her sanity was almost ruined when voodoo practitioners forced her out of the area after attacking her. Some months later, and she is feeling better so applies for a job in a sleepy English village thinking it will be less taxing than what she has done before. She meets with the local vicar, Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), who reassures her that she is ideal for the post and her experiences abroad will have no bearing on her employment there. But bad luck, Gwen, there's something sinister going on there too...

Legend has it that Joan Fontaine decided to buy the rights to the novel The Witches was based upon as a possible vehicle to star herself. After all, her contemporaries were turning up in horror films in the sixties, though she didn't fancy taking one of the crazy old lady roles and wanted the heroine one instead, so what better than to stand up against the massed forces of evil which have emerged in one corner which was supposed to have been forever England? Well, at the time there were quite a few people who could think of better options for entertainment, and Joan never made another film, although she did show up on television every once in a while.

Nevertheless, because it was her final movie, it has generated interest over the years, and that's not the only reason, as this was a Hammer production, one of their few witchcraft horrors, and was scripted by Nigel Kneale, the man who had provided them with their Quatermass hits of the fifties, and soon another one with Quatermass and the Pit. However, outside of those sci-fi horrors he didn't have much luck with his big screen efforts, and even to this day is best recalled for his pioneering and innovative television work, which is still impressive. Not something that could be said of The Witches, which crawls along in light of the fact that you're simply waiting for Gwen to catch on to what we have guessed in the first five minutes.

That being, all is not right in the village as the clues mount up and she puts two and two together. If nothing else, we have twigged this before Gwen because, well, just look at that butcher, grinning with cheerful menace, suggestively running a cloth up and down his big chopper, overenthusiastically skinning a rabbit when she goes in to buy a cut of meat, and laughing a lot. Watch out for him, because he appears at intervals and is always amusing, especially in the climax. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, as first Gwen has to turn detective when strange occurences arouse her suspicions, stuff like a curious puritanical streak the adults have about the two teenagers courting.

This ends with the girl (Ingrid Boulting, then called Ingrid Brett) getting her hand put in the mangle by her grandmother, deliberately, according to the boy (Martin Stephens, already a veteran of spooky stuff). In fact, there are few denizens of this hamlet who don't come across as a little touched, not least Alan who it transpires is not a vicar after all, but just pretending, preferring to spend his time in his religious artifact-festooned study, listening to church organ music at full volume. As if that were not enough to unsettle Gwen, there is no church in the village at all, a sure sign that we're dealing with godless heathens - but Alan's writer sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) seems levelheaded enough, so there's absolutely no way that she could get up to any funny business. There is an interesting development halfway through when Gwen is trapped in a nursing home which claims she has been in a coma for a year, but it all goes off the rails when you see the hybrid voodoo-witchcraft-er, Aztec (?) ceremony at the end, which is inappropriately hilarious. Oh well, nice try, anyway: you don't get many horrors with scary sheep. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.

[Studio Canal have released a remastered version of this on Blu-ray and DVD. A Hammer documentary is the sole extra.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Cyril Frankel  (1921 - )

British director who made the star-packed war comedy On the Fiddle and was uncredited co-director on School for Scoundrels, as well as working on such TV shows as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Avengers, Jason King and UFO.

 
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