With a television and film career that spans over seven decades, Joan Fontaine has always been one of the more versatile actresses in Hollywood. Her big break came in the early forties, when she became one of Alfred Hitchcock’s girls. For Hitch, she made Rebecca in 1940 (which won the Oscar for best picture as well as earning Fontaine a best actress nomination) and Suspicion in 1941 (for which she won the best actress Oscar). Since her time with the Master of Suspense, Fontaine has done everything from classic cinema, with roles in films like Ivanhoe and Jane Eyre, to campy science fiction, with a turn in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In 1966, Fontaine gave her last big-screen performance as the lead in the Hammer Horror film The Witches.
The Witches stars Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield, a teacher who suffered a nervous breakdown when she was caught up in a voodoo uprising while on a teaching mission in Africa. Now recovered, she finds a job in a sleepy English village at a school run by a phony priest named Alan Bax (Alec McCowen from Frenzy) and his sister, a writer named Stephanie (Stage Fright’s Kay Walsh). In her class, Gwen meets Ronnie (Martin Stephens from Village of the Damned and The Innocents), a young boy with a talent for writing whom she decides to mentor. Gwen also meets Ronnie’s little girlfriend, Linda (Ingrid Brett from Conversations with God), a young woman who is infatuated with carrying around a pair of toy dolls, one that looks like her and one that looks like Ronnie. Gwen notices that the adults in the village seem to be trying to keep Ronnie and Linda apart, and when Ronnie gets sick and falls into a coma, she finds Linda’s Ronnie doll with pins stuck through it. The doll triggers memories of her experience in Africa, and Gwen has a relapse of her breakdown. The villagers take good care of Gwen, getting her to a hospital and paying for her stay, but bring her right back to the village when she is discharged. The townspeople have plans for Gwen, plans that also involve the little girl Linda and a coven of witches. Gwen has to figure out what the witches have in store for her before her time runs out.
Joan Fontaine secured the rights to Norah Lofts’ novel “The Devil’s Own” (written as Peter Curtis) and brought the property to Hammer as a vehicle for herself. Released as The Devil’s Own in America, the screenplay for The Witches was written by Nigel Kneale, better known as the creator and writer of the Quartermass movies and television shows. Kneale’s script seems, at times, to be trying to coax some comedy out of the story, but director Cyril Frankel (Never Take Sweets from a Stranger) is there to reel it back in. Frankel takes the script and makes a very atypical Hammer picture, different from the gothic classics, but still manages to hold on tightly to the occult angle of the story. The Witches carves a clever combination of witchcraft and voodoo, walking the line between sheer terror and campy extravagance. Actually, it doesn’t walk the line; it hops over it.
The Witches is a tale of two halves; the setup is genius, with the subtleties of the kids and the dolls mixing with the strange behavior of the villagers. Gwen’s introduction to the characters and subsequent exploration of the village is great exposition, and the mystery that unfolds before her is captivating. The film turns the corner when Gwen is hospitalized, and there is no going back. It is that point where the movie gets a little silly, concluding with a fully choreographed and rehearsed satanic ritual performed by the witches’ coven. It’s the type of humor that Kneale probably intended from the beginning, and the same unintentional comedy that Frankel tried to keep out of the film. It’s inconsistent, and any fear and suspense that was built up throughout The Witches is reverted to laughter by the end.
Joan Fontaine carries The Witches. The character of Gwen is far and away the central figure of the film, and she is in just about every scene. Fontaine is up for the task; she has a field day, selling her role like a pro, whether in the tense infancy of the film, or the ridiculous third act. Fontaine elevates the performances of the rest of the cast and, as a result of her presence, The Witches is a very well-acted, and well, over-acted film.
Photographed by Hammer Horror stalwart cinematographer Arthur Grant (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), The Witches is one of the brighter Hammer films. It is shot in beautiful Technicolor, taking advantage of the quant outdoor locations and spooky indoor sets. Grant makes liberal use of camera motion, quick zooms, and selective focus to show what’s important in the frame and draw attention to it in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The picture still has much of the perspective and angling that is a staple of Hammer Horror production, but lacks the shadows and darkness, giving it less of a film noir feel. The Witches looks like a Hammer Horror film, but with a kinder, gentler tone, resulting in a more realistic vibe. At least, until the over-the-top ending arrives – then, all realism is out the window.
After The Witches, Joan Fontaine would go on to work in television until the mid nineties, doing mostly soap operas and movie-of-the-week fare. Her horror legacy was over almost as quickly as it began, but her talents were put to good use in The Witches.