Over the holidays, I picked up a bunch of books (surprise, surprise). One of them was the revivified Hammer Horror's recently repackaged apparent tie-in novelization of their 1966 film The Witches, directed by Cyril Frankel from a screenplay by Quatermass series creator Nigel Kneale, and later characterized by actor/writer Mark Gatiss as being part of a wave of British “folk horror” which would also include things like Hammer's own Witchfinder General (dir. Michael Reeves, 1968), The Blood on Satan's Claw (dir. Piers Haggard, 1971) and the original The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973). I vaguely remembered having had a copy of this on VHS, though I find I am no longer able to locate it—but never mind, because it turns out that some lovely person has seen fit to upload the entire movie to YouTube. (The Blood on Satan's Claw too, if you're interested.)
Before viewing The Witches, I read the book—by “Peter Curtis,” which turns out to be a pseudonym for historical novelist Norah Lofts, who died in 1983, and not in fact a novelization at all, since (under its original title, The Devil's Own) it's what Kneale adapted his screenplay from—to reacquaint myself with the film's plot, and was pleasantly impressed by its mounting air of Shirley Jackson meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style post-1950s paranoia. The story is told from the highly restricted POV of its protagonist, Miss Mayfield (played in the movie by Joan Fontaine, who brought Hammer the property after it'd been dropped by Seven Arts), a woman so self-effacing she doesn't even think of herself by her own first name (Gwen)—though she constantly calls Miss Tilbury, the “saintly” childhood friend whose vaguely lesbian charisma enticed her to spend decades of her life teaching at a Christian missionary school in Africa before a sickness-prefaced mental breakdown forced her to return to England, “Rose.” Once back “Home,” Miss Mayfield feels dissatisfied and alienated in her new urban school posting, until a prospective job opens up as dean of a small public school in Walwyck village endowed by the family of pleasant young Canon Thorby (renamed Bax in the film, where he's played by handsomely neurotic Alec McCowen), whose philanthropic ancestors were local squires.
Re-energized by the idea of occupying a position so similar to what she was doing in Africa, Miss Mayfield is interviewed, immediately gets it, and moves almost the next day into a fully-furnished house in Walwyck's bucolic surroundings. The neighbours are friendly, the children charming, and her peers—especially the Canon himself, whose church turns out to be historically interesting yet oddly non-functional/possibly deconsecrated—are a joy to work with. Indeed, everything seems utterly hunky-dory until Miss Mayfield intercepts an oddly-spelled anonymous note passed in class which reads: Ethel Rigby's granny treats her something crool. Quickly, she identifies it as having been written by pretty young Ethel's would-be beau, over-intelligent shoemaker's son Sydney Baines, and decides to check out Ethel's home situation. This sparks off a series of events that lead to an ever-widening pattern of weird “coincidence” resulting in unease, terror, destruction, injury and even death.
Short story short: Granny Rigby, who has a reputation in Walwyck as a “cunning woman,” is indeed a witch, and one of the uppermost members of a cult that apparently involves over half the villagers; she also has plans for Ethel, ones which very much do not involve the girl—already illegitimate, her mother having gotten “in trouble” and “run off to the city”—becoming “over-friendly” with the likes of Sydney Baines. However, Granny Rigby is not, in fact, the witch-cult's guiding light: someone else is pulling her strings, playing out a long game that involves Ethel . . . and Miss Mayfield . . . intimately. This turns out to be the Canon's older sister, a rather colourless figure in the book, although “Curtis” inserts some interesting implications about her perhaps being a possessed corpse resurrected by Granny Rigby after a successful suicide “attempt,” but who Kneale very smartly re-imagined as energetic, waspish “Ladies' Mag” journalist Stephanie Bax (“It's a sex thing, of course,” she says, of the rural witchcraft tradition, “mostly practiced by post-menopausal women—a way of recapturing power lost with youth and desirability”), plausible and ruthless in equal measures, whose outright courtship of Miss Mayfield as her consort/sidekick brings the book's lesbian subtext to an alternately seductive and terrifying head.
By taking control of the witch-cult that Granny Rigby may have been born into, and using her mad research skillz to codify its rituals, Stephanie has, in a way, made herself over into the figure of absolute religious authority her brother—not really a Canon, though he play-acts at being one by wearing a dog-collar and sitting in a study crammed with religious statuary listening to church music on a massive stereo system—only aspires to be. As high priestess, she wears both a chasuble and a horned diadem, possibly of her own design, accepting reverence and dictating behaviour with complete confidence; the fact that both of these are very male-coded items is probably significant, too. But Stephanie's “belief” in the symbolic/superstitious system she works so hard to maintain is utilitarian, practical and entirely selfish; instead of worshiping Satan per se, her energy is actually directed towards recapturing her own measure of youth and sexiness by literally wearing Ethel's new-flayed young virgin flesh like a new coat . . . no, seriously. Kneale adds a shot of potential Mexica blood-sacrifice to the proceedings, conjuring images that play like Ed Gein crossed with Xipe Totec, through this wonderfully creepy rhyme/spell Stephanie quotes—
Grow me a gown with golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in.
Halfway through the narrative and long before this revelation, however, Miss Mayfield suffers a second nervous breakdown with accompanying amnesia that knocks out the last three years of her life, and finds herself confined to first a hospital, then a halfway house where her “caretakers” are eager to impress the idea on her that if she steps out of line, the next step may be complete institutionalization. Fontaine sketches out a masterful portrayal of a naturally shy, retiring woman forced to fend for herself, to become an undercover operative in her own life who literally cannot trust anything she thinks she “knows,” reduced to feeling her way unaided through the seemingly endless dark room of a suddenly denuded psychic landscape. Who can she turn to? Is any of the kindness she's offered genuine, or is it all a socially acceptable scrim over—to paraphrase Richard Adams—the green fields everywhere around her coming off like a lid, revealing something better hid (unpleasant!)?
Soft-spoken and vulnerable, Fontaine makes her slow but steady way forward on sheer, exposed-nerve will, braving hallucinations (the African masks of her first breakdown, a child's doll stirring to horrible life, shadows and voices she knows can't possibly be there) to reach the physically palpable truth of the matter, the farmland’s Heart of Darkness: a defiled sanctuary full of lumpy, pasty British peasants smearing themselves in drug-soaked “flying ointment” so sticky-dark it reads like excrement and performing an orgy-like modern dance-number while Stephanie Bax holds court, steering them around like puppets caught in the fatal pull of her hypnotic influence.
As other critics have noted, it's a shame that this rare contemporary-set Hammer chiller has slipped into obscurity over the years, elbowed out of most reference books and Google alike by Nicholas Roeg's popular children's film of the same name. Possibly, Kneale's screenplay strikes the modern viewer as a bit too subtle/pastoral for most people's tastes; the film's initial pace is certainly leisurely, just as its implications are kept strictly BBC standards-compliant, perhaps rendering it quaint by comparison with (for example) The Wicker Man's happy pagan boobfest. But perseverance is definitely rewarded with a rousing climax, even if it is followed by one of the most hilariously quick attempts at re-heterosexualizing a narrative I've ever come across. Still, what'cha gonna do?
From my point of view, the only real drawback to Hammer's The Witches is the uncomfortable realization that forty years on, the likelihood of even a genre-bound B-picture being headlined today by (including Granny Rigby) three active, interesting women in their fifties—all doing equally awesome work, if in strikingly different ways—is still so incredibly rare as to sound risible. So seek it out, even on YouTube if you must, and enjoy the estrogen.