An old friend has kindly lent (loaned?) me The Ultimate Hammer Collection. Given the rotten weather, sitting and watching some old British horror is an attractive prospect. And amid the usual Dracula and Frankenstein flicks are some rarities - or at least, films I've never seen.
Perhaps the most interesting is The Witches, a 1966 production starring Joan Fontaine. As the presence of such a big name star suggests, this is altogether more ambitious than the usual Hammer feature, and this is reflected in the script by Nigel Kneale. It's based on a novel, The Devil's Own, by Peter Curtis - a pen-name for a female crime writer, Nora Lofts. This may explain why the story has several strong female characters. As well as Joan Fontaine, the film stars Kay Walsh, and theres' a small role for a young Michele Dotrice. We also get Leonard Rossiter as a smooth but not wholly trustworthy doctor, and Duncan Lamont, a British movie regular who a year later would play Sladden in Quatermass and the Pit.
The Witches is notable for the way Kneale (presumably following the novel's lead) carefully avoids any explicit use of the supernatural. Yes, there's a black cat and a doll with pins in it, but old ladies talking of herbal remedies emphasise that belief is as important as real power. Is witchcraft about demonic forces, mass hysteria, auto-suggestion? It's impossible to draw any conclusions, but some scenes leave you wondering.
The story begins in Africa where Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) is caught up in a tribal uprising instigated by a witch doctor. She has a breakdown following a not-too-specific ordeal. In the next scene she is back in England, applying for a job at a village school run by amiable vicar Alan Bax (Alec McCowan - another fine actor). But it emerges that Bax is not, in fact, a priest and the village of Heddaby lost its church in some unspecified disaster a long time ago...
The story might seem cliched - small village, sinister goings-on, a cast of sullen yokel suspects and an outsider who opens a can of Satanic worms. But in Kneale's hands, and with some fine performances, The Witches is far from commonplace. The complexity and subtlety of a novel plot is retained, and some plot twists are genuinely surprising. Kneale also, intriguingly, draws a parallel between African and European witchcraft, with a climactic scene in which some of the villagers engage in what is obviously meant to be tribal dancing, drums and all. This is slightly naff - very physical theatre - but it's given a touch of class by a lot of authentic Latin invocations.
It's also refreshing to find a film of this sort in which all the principal characters are middle-aged. It's a sensible schoolmarm, not some young whippersnapper, who divines the truth about Heddaby. And she even finds romance at the end. Oh, and the film is the first (to my knowledge) to feature a scary sheep stampede as a genuine plot device. So many reasons to watch The Witches!