An authority figure goes to an isolated location in an official capacity, meets an enigmatic leader who seems to have the entire community in their thrall, gets involved in the mystery of a missing teenage girl, all culminating in a paganistic ritual of human sacrifice in which the villagers dance and gyrate wildly in an almost hypnotic state.
It’s a story we’ve seen before. Or should I say since, because today’s entry in 31 Days of Horror, one of Hammer’s lesser-known entries, preceded David Pinner’s novel Ritual by a year, not to mention coming seven years before the film based on it, The Wicker Man. The Witches sits quite comfortably alongside that film as a classic of the then-unnamed genre Folk Horror (it is believed that the term, now in quite frequent use, was coined in a 2004 Fangoria article in which director Piers Haggard talked about his 1971 film Blood On Satan’s Claw).
The Witches begins in Africa and we find our heroine Gwen Mayfield (played by screen legend Joan Fontaine in her last major movie role before making the move to TV) being menaced out of her mission school by local witch doctors. Cut to an unspecified time later and Gwen is back in England, having recently recovered from the mental breakdown she suffered during her time in Africa.
As she takes on the mantle of the new school headmistress, Gwen begins to notice that the seemingly idyllic village has a rotten core, which leads her to suspect witchcraft. But is this a paranoid conspiracy brought on by the trauma of her experiences abroad? Not even Gwen is sure she’s quite sane.
The Witches definitely subscribes to the rules of Folk Horror, as postulated by Adam Scovell in a paper written for an event at Queens University, Belfast, and which went on to become the basis for his excellent book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange where Scovell calls the rules The Folk Horror Chain which I’ll attempt to condense here:
- Landscape – in The Witches this is represented by the village of Heddaby. It’s a strong setting for the majority of the film, with a distinct aesthetic – rural, seemingly idyllic, but with a dark secret, barely hidden beneath the surface. The landscape echoes the behaviour and mindset of its residents. This same motif was used to wonderful effect in 2007’s Hot Fuzz (which I will argue, until I am blue in the face, is a near-perfect example of Folk Horror). The landscape then leads to the second part of the chain:
- Isolation – landscape alone is not enough. The community and the protagonist need to be cut off from normal society. The Witches (as, once again, Hot Fuzz) displays this with our hero out of their depth, in a nowhere village and unable to escape leading to a culture clash which forms part three in the chain:
- Skewed Moral Beliefs – the protagonist is our audience surrogate. Gwen (or Nicholas Angel) is the normal person who is like us. The villagers, in isolating themselves, have developed an unusual belief system which often takes the form of occultism, paganism or cult behaviour (like an extreme version of the Neighbourhood Watch Association) which clashes with our hero’s own values. And this clash leads to the final, most terrifying link in the chain:
- Happening – this is the manifestation of that belief system, which can often take the form of some kind of violent ritual act like human sacrifice or the summoning of a supernatural entity (or a shootout in the village square).
For me what makes The Witches stand out from some of its other Hammer contemporaries is the subtlety with which it approaches the subject that its sensational title otherwise suggests. It’s a lot gentler in tone than, say, Dracula, Prince of Darkness or The Reptile which came out in the same year, with violence being implied rather than displayed (most of the film’s deaths actually occur offscreen). But that doesn’t make it less scary. In fact, I think it has the opposite effect. Like its spiritual successor The Wicker Man this film does not need to rely on jump scares or gore to convey its threat. The juxtaposition of the weird and the normal does that perfectly well all by itself, creating an underlying menace which, within moments of Gwen arriving in the village, is ever-present to the end.
Speaking of weird, there is a section in the middle of The Witches which put me in mind of The Prisoner, the cult ITV show which would follow the next year. During this section, the folk horror is put to one side, but the film still does a great job of creating a malevolent, oppressive atmosphere.
In the end, The Witches joins the oeuvre of films which can only be described as ambiguous. Screenwriter Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Stone Tape) weaves a realistic, unsettling mystery. Was the witchcraft real? Was Gwen’s paranoia a result of her PTSD? Did something supernatural really happen? It’s never handed to us on a plate, left up to the viewer to decide for themselves. Since watching this I’ve still not yet made my mind up and I’m not sure which side of the argument, when I finally do settle on an answer, is the more terrifying prospect!
Remember to follow the hashtag #31DOH on Twitter and Facebook every day in October to see what other terrifying treats we’ve been watching!