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Kneale Before Satan: The Witches Reviewed
Mat Colegate , October 9th, 2013 05:59

Mat Colegate settles down with a glass of hemlock to view the new release of The Witches, a 1966 occult horror film from the pen of cult scribe Nigel Kneale

When a movie goes off the boil before it's conclusion it is always disappointing, all the work that has gone in to pulling the audience along in the film's wake, tensely awaiting a satisfying pay-off is over in an instant, leaving the crowd scratching their heads and attempting to analyse where exactly it all went wrong. With tales of the supernatural the risk of disappointment is greater due to the nature of the genre. The ending of a horror film needs to be shocking; it needs to leave the audience shaking in their wellies having just seen sights and heard sounds that will stay with them long after the lights go up. The problem with The Witches, the 1966 Hammer production newly released on DVD by Studiocanal, is that the ending deflates the tension and ends up catapulting the film (not unentertainingly) into outright comedy.

Early signs, however, are good. The script is by Nigel Kneale, best known for his ground breaking scripts for TV shows such as Quatermass And The Pit and The Stone Tape. Both genuinely chilling and unsettling masterpieces. Quatermass... in particular, with its dreary smog filled atmosphere of desolation and apocalyptic revelation, still unnerves over 50 years after it was first broadcast. Kneale has a particular touch, sceptical and ruthlessly explorative, his scripts always take particular pains over the consequences of intrusions from planes that are not our own, and to seek logical explanations for what the audience is seeing. Great performances from Joan Fontaine and Kay Walsh also help as well as the attraction of sumptuous technicolour and a charming English rural setting. The set up may not be original but it has tension to spare and the script is just fresh enough to keep the viewer guessing.

Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) is a teacher just returned from Africa after a tribal rebellion forced her to flee the country. The first scene, depicting the assault on her school room by a particularly terrifying witch doctor is marvellous (Jesus, will I never get over my fear of tribal masks?) and Fontaine unstops a particularly excellent scream which she will be called upon to use again before the film is through. Cut to Fontaine meeting up with Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) vicar (OR IS HE?) of the English country village of Heddaby, who offers Joan a job as the local head teacher. Mayfield accepts only to begin to realise that her troubles with black magic may not be as far behind her as she thought.

That is a pretty classic set up for this sort of film and it's where Kneale's script goes off message and starts probing into the nooks and crannies of the supernatural that it is at it's strongest. His observations of rural folk lore are typically sharp and when his characters start talking about the supernatural in terms more appropriate to Freudian psychology then it gets really interesting (One of the characters refers to a coven as a 'Group', a very 'in' psychological term in 1966). The atmosphere of dread is well maintained and a sudden twist two thirds of the way in, during which the scene changes completely and the viewer is left completely at sea, promises a surprising conclusion. However, following this surprise the pacing is completely thrown off and a lot of the film's atmosphere deteriorates. I'm not going to go into too much detail (despite misgivings it's definitely worth seeing for yourself), but as a clue I shall simply leave two words that should strike more fear into your heart than any amount of supernatural goings on: interpretive dance.

Would I recommend The Witches? Yeah, absolutely. It's plotting is tight and suspenseful and it's well directed and performed with a few terrifically creepy moments. Kneale's sceptical approach keeps you guessing and it looks simply gorgeous. The English countryside locale glows with technicolour vigour, in sharp contrast to the demonic goings on happening behind the village's twitching curtains. Sure, it clangs into the last reel and never really recovers, but if you dig classic horror from this period then you'll be sure to have a good time. Just don't be too surprised if those shrieks of horror you save for such films end up being replaced with shrieks of laughter.

The Witches is out on DVD/Blu-ray double play on October 21st. There is a special screening at the London Film Festival on the 11th of October.