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Witches, The (1966)


Main image of Witches, The (1966)
35mm, colour, 91 mins
Directed byCyril Frankel
Production CompanyHammer Films; Seven Arts
ProducerAnthony Nelson Keys
ScreenplayNigel Kneale
Original novelPeter Curtis
PhotographyArthur Grant
MusicRichard Rodney Bennett

Cast: Joan Fontaine (Gwen Mayfield), Kay Walsh (Stephanie Bax), Alec McCowen (Alan Bax), Duncan Lamont (Bob Curd), Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (Granny Rigg), Leonard Rossiter (Dr Wallis)

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Gwen Mayfield begins her new job as head teacher of a small rural school, and soon comes to suspect witchcraft in the village. Her investigations uncover a nefarious scheme involving the sacrifice of one of her schoolchildren and the enslavement of the townspeople.

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The Witches marked the return of scriptwriter Nigel Kneale to Hammer, a decade after his last collaboration on The Quatermass Xperiment (d. Val Guest, 1955). However, in this instance Kneale's work is an adaptation of the 1960 novel, The Devil's Own, by Peter Curtis (pseudonym of Norah Lofts, a female crime writer, which may explain the centrality of female characters in this story compared to other Hammer releases).

Annotations on Kneale's draft script dated 21 March 1961 (and still entitled 'The Devil's Own') suggest that Kneale's original version had Linda's character speak much more properly than in the final film, marking her out as intelligent and middle-class - as her boyfriend, Ronnie, remains in the finished piece. However, the script revisions change her language to identify her as working-class. For example,

Won the Women's Institute Prize. Not just Heddaby - the whole country. Anything Gran put in for, she wins every time.


Win the wimen's Institute Proize. Nat jost Heddaby - the whole country. Enythin' Gran p'tin f'r, she wins every toime.

What this does is establish an undercurrent of class tension to the film. The educated, middle-class Stephanie holds control over the poorer, uneducated townsfolk that Linda represents. Although, of course, it is the middle-class Gwen who eventually subverts Stephanie, proving a match for her in a way that no one else in the village could have.

As with several Hammer films from this period, established ideas of right and wrong are seen to be on the verge of collapse. For example, the ruined church and Alan's refusal to take off his collar, despite not being a clergyman, suggest a community trying to cling onto some definite rules and order, despite the slow break up of the institutions that had readily provided them in the past.

The marketing of the film was, typically for Hammer in this period, fairly comprehensive and sophisticated. Hammer produced a 6,000-word serialisation and four-section strip cartoon intended for newspapers, and a special edition of The Devil's Own by Curtis, (now retitled The Witches) was released by Pan Books.

Despite this, the film was not as successful as hoped, and by the next year Hammer had already refocused its activities on sequels to its Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, not tackling more challenging material again until the early '70s.

Paul Moody

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Video Clips
1. Voodoo curse (2:08)
2. The sacrifice (3:26)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)
To the Devil a Daughter (1976)
Witchfinder General (1968)
Frankel, Cyril (1921-)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)
Nelson Keys, Anthony (1911-1985)
Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)
Walker, Rudolph (1939-)
Hammer Horror