Hammer Studios' most memorable film, The Wicker Man,1 has its origins in at least two of the studio's earlier productions. In 1960, they took a young woman to a small New England village in The City of the Dead. Six years later, they moved a little closer to the notorious cult classic with The Witches, also released as The Devil's Own. Instead of cribbing Lovecraft, this time they directly adapt Norah Loft's 1960 novel, editions of which also received the titles The Little Wax Doll and Catch as Catch Can.

After surviving a "witch doctor-led" rebellion in the African village where she teaches, a British woman takes a post in a small English village, where nothing like that could possibly happen. After several twists, she begins to see the truth. The idea of ordinary folk as secret, deadly cultists remains a powerful one, and the gradual realization works fairly well.

Unfortunately, the cult and their rituals reach levels of cheesiness that the Monks of Bellelay would have envied. The costumes and trappings would have not been out of place in a third-season Star Trek TOS ep, while the rituals themselves recall late 60s experimental theatre or early 1970s group therapy.

The opening proves even more problematic. Yes, by all means, we must take care when applying the understanding of the present on the art of the past. Sure, the matte painting used to take us into darkest Africa looks so obvious and artificial it's almost an artistic statement in its own right. And okay, the African natives get portrayed as superstitious and fearful half-children (which, in this film, actually makes them more aware than the protagonist) or murderous savages. The intended audience, back in the day, was both visually naive and culturally unenlightened.

Except this film dates from 1966. The matte would have passed twenty years earlier, in black and white, but not in '66. And those racial attitudes cannot be contextualized as the ignorance typical of the day.

The movie adapts a novel with a premise used once before by Hammer, and already familiar to readers of horror. This version of the plot features some unexpected and intriguing twists, though at times these may challenge the viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief. As a bonus, we get Joan Fontaine in her final cinematic role-- she would act only on stage and television during her remaining thirty years. The Witches remains intriguing to fans of older horror, but most viewers will want to jump straight to The Wicker Man, which does a significantly better job with the basic premise.


Director: Cyril Frankel
Writers: Nigel Kneale, from the novel by Norah Lofts (Writing as Peter Curtis)

Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield
Kay Walsh as Stephanie Bax
Alec McCowen as Alan Bax
Ann Bell as Sally Benson
Ingrid Boulting as Linda Rigg
John Collin as Dowsett
Michele Dotrice as Valerie Creek
Gwen Ffrangcon Davies as Granny Rigg
Duncan Lamont as Bob Curd
Leonard Rossiter as Dr. Wallis
Martin Stephens as Ronnie Dowsett
Carmel McSharry as Mrs. Dowsett
Viola Keats as Mrs. Curd
Shelagh Fraser as Mrs. Creek

1. With possibly the worst remake in cinematic history: few B-movies have ever been as bad as Neil LaBute and Nicholas Cage's 2006 disaster.

For We All Float Down Here: The 2017 Halloween Horrorquest

The Witches is a simply smashing children's book written by Roald Dahl, first published in 1983, with illustrations by Quentin Blake sprinkled throughout. The version published by Puffin Books in 2001 is just 201 pages long, including the marvellous illustrations. You're bound to have an enjoyable afternoon while reading it, and if you don't, why then, at only 201 pages (including illustrations, don't forget) it's over so quickly anyway that you can read something else the same day!

The story begins:

In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS. That is why they are so hard to catch.

You will be warned quite thoroughly of the danger of witches in the first chapter. Witches, you know, love getting rid of children and spend all their time plotting to do so, even while engaged in seemingly normal tasks.

In the second chapter, you will meet the boy, who confides that he has had two (not just one, but two!) separate encounters with witches before he was eight years old! He went to live with his Norwegian grandmother just after his seventh birthday, who is an intriguing individual who tells stories, smokes cigars, and knows of no less than five children who fell afoul of witches. It is from her that the boy learns (and you will too!) all about the sad and varied tales of how those five children met their fates at the hands of witches. Consider them precautionary tales.

Do you want to know how to recognize a witch? Be sure to read Chapter 3! Witches go to great lengths to disguise their witchy features, but you can tell them by their disguises if you know what you are looking for. To learn the disguises, you'll need to read the book. I recommend you do, so you can protect the children you know. Underneath the disguises, witches have curvy claws, baldness, larger nose-holes, pupils that change colour (yes, the pupils, not the irises), no toes, and blue spit. Frightful! And do you know why they have large nose-holes? For smelling with! Children smell absolutely HORRIBLE to witches. Like fresh dogs' droppings!

You are now intrigued, I can tell. I can tell because you are still here, listening. But, if you are here still listening, then you could not possibly have picked up this book yet. So, just a bit more, and then you simply must go and spend that enjoyable afternoon I spoke of earlier. Oh my! What treats are in store for you as you eagerly turn the pages! A magnificent hotel! The Grand High Witch! Mice! A dastardly scheme by the witches to be rid of all the smelly children! And oh, what happens to the darling brave boy who is telling you these stories, it is simply too much!

Be off with you then, for if you are not already reading this book, then I despair of your sense of adventure, fun, and frivolity. I will spend my time far more fruitfully by re-reading this scrumptious book myself and making sure any child I meet knows how to spot a witch themselves.

'You can say that again!' my grandmother cried, giving me another kiss. 'I can't wait to get started!'

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