The Witches which was released in the US as The Devil’s Own which is also the name of the novel the film is based on. It opens with a dramatic scene in an unspecified country in Africa in which Gwen Mayfield, played by Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion, is chased out of town by a tribal uprising lead by the witch doctors one of who looks like a giant Mr Potato head. The rest of the film is set in a very different location in the small rural village of Heddaby where she is recruited to be the schools new headmistress by the wealthy siblings Alan and Stephanie Bax, Alec McCowen (Frenzy)and Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist)respectively.
Heddaby seems like a wonderful place to recuperate after the dramatic incident in Africa, however it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The first clue that something is off about the village is the revelation that Alan is not a priest as he first presents himself; in fact, there is not even a current church in the village. The headmistress’s attentions focuses on two students, Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting, The Last Tycoon) and Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens, Village of the Damned) who, at fourteen has a blossoming potential romance. However, this relationship is cut short when Ronnie mysteriously falls into a comma and coincidently (or not) a doll missing its head with pins stuck in it is discovered.
Things go from bad to worse for Gwen with the death of one of the villagers leading her to jump to the conclusion that there is a coven in the village intent on human sacrifice (quite a large jump from the supposed suicide or accidental death of a drunk man) and she is briefly hospitalised and loses her memory. At the climax of the film, Gwen Mayfield returns to Heddaby in an attempt to regain her memory. Unfortunately, she stumbles onto a ritual in which the villagers intend to sacrifice poor Linda Rigg and she is her only hope of survival.
I have to commend The Witches imagination in costume and props, it has to contain the most ominous feather duster on screen. The witches costume at the final dramatic scene is something to behold, a bright orange tabard with a three horned goat creature on and an excellent headpiece comprised of burning mummified hands. There is little to write about either the acting or the soundtrack in the film, both are average, neither excellent nor remarkably bad and both make the film easy to follow and a joy to watch, ramping up the tension throughout the film.
Not one of Hammer Horror’s best films it is nevertheless an enjoyable, if slow to get started, to watch with some bizarre costume choices. It is missing the usual blood and boobs of a hammer film so don’t expect it but what you get instead is a creepy off-beat tale of witchcraft. I particularly enjoy the link the film makes between witchcraft in different cultures, from the wilds of Africa to the quaint English countryside.