Hammer’s The Witches is an odd film.
Based on the novel The Devil’s Own, written by Norah Lofts under pseudonym Peter Curtis, it follows a teacher to a small town that is under the thumb of witchcraft. Although The Witches came a couple of years ahead of the folk horror boom of the late 60’s/early 70’s, which brought us both fantastic films like The Wicker Man and overrated crap like Witchfinder General (fight me), it would be right at home in a collection of highlights of the genre. The film is set in the isolated English village of Heddaby, where it is quickly apparent all is not as it seems. I hesitate to compare this film too much to The Wicker Man, but there’s a definite Summerisle vibe to Heddaby — everyone’s a little too happy, a little too close-knit, and very obviously in on some big local secret. The only difference is the residents of Summerisle openly reveled in their paganism, whereas we’re made to wonder, for a while, which residents of Heddaby are the titular witches.
Our outsider and heroine, Gwen Mayfield, played by Joan Fontaine, already has witchcraft on the brain, having spent time teaching at a mission school in Africa, where she suffered a “breakdown” after being attacked by local witch doctors. Hammer was never one to subvert terrible horror tropes, so it’s a relief that they don’t linger in this territory long enough to fully reach the level of racist stereotypes as, say, White Zombie or I Walked With A Zombie.
After Gwen recovers, she is approached by Rev. Alan Bax and hired as headmistress of Heddaby’s only school. Alan and his sister Stephanie are the village’s most prominent citizens and by far the shadiest. It’s only after Gwen arrives in town that she discovers Alan isn’t a priest at all; he “failed” at the seminary and spends most of his time closed off in a room full of Catholic iconography, listening to hymns on repeat and occasionally wearing a clerical collar to, I guess, feel a little better about himself. Stephanie is easily the more intriguing sibling, a well-known journalist and a thoroughly modern woman the likes of which are rarely found in Hammer films. Sadly, the latter is ultimately her downfall.
Stephanie and Gwen hit it off immediately. How many Hammer films pass the Bechdel Test? Surely someone has written about this at some point, but if I had to guess, I’d say: not many. The Vampire Lovers comes to mind and, though it’s one of my personal favorites from Hammer, it’s hardly a piece of feminist media. Neither is The Witches. I appreciate Hammer films for what they are and don’t try to make them anything they’re not, but coming from a studio whose female characters are often hyper-sexualized to the point of ridiculousness, it’s refreshing to encounter two mature, intelligent women who respect each other’s competence and whose narratives don’t revolve around a man. Many reviewers — and even the authorized history of the studio, published in 2005 — have commented that The Witches doesn’t feel like a Hammer film and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s also one of (if not the) only film in their catalog in which none of the women are explicitly sexualized. Coming just before the marketing shift around the onset of the 1970’s that saw Hammer ramping up the sleaze to whole new levels, it stands, in my opinion, alongside the likes of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein as proof that they could make decent, straight-forward horror films without all the excess camp and cleavage when they wanted to.
Gwen starts her new job trying to keep track of dozens of Heddaby children of varying ages and two students immediately stand out: quiet Linda and her boyfriend Ronnie. Everyone in town has apparently made it a personal mission to keep the two teenage lovebirds apart for reasons unknown. Gwen tries to reach out to them in different ways but takes a special interest in Ronnie, who she believes is exceptionally bright despite the fact that he is falling behind in school. She and Alan hold a meeting with Ronnie’s parents and briefly entertain the idea of sending him to boarding school — which Alan later ominously remarks would have been “better” — but the idea is dismissed and Gwen takes on the role of personal tutor to the boy. Meanwhile Linda suffers a mysterious accident which Ronnie believes was inflicted on her by her cruel grandmother, a suspicious old woman who is easily the most likely person in town to be a witch.
Shortly after, Ronnie becomes suddenly ill and is rushed to the hospital in a coma. His father discloses to Gwen that Ronnie’s mother once had shingles and believed it was the result of witchcraft, a spell placed on her by Linda’s grandmother after the two of them argued about the lovebirds’ relationship. It’s with this in mind that Gwen then discovers a boy doll, a gift from Ronnie to Linda, full of pins, with it’s head missing. Gwen brings the doll and her suspicions to Stephanie, who is intrigued by the idea that someone in their village might believe themselves to be a witch and proposes that the two of them collaborate on an article about the subject. On her way home, Gwen finds Ronnie’s mother wandering the streets and gives her a ride. When Gwen tells her she suspects Ronnie is the victim of a witch’s spell, the already distraught mother becomes even more upset and demands to be let out. The last we see of her, she is running toward the home of Linda and her grandmother.
The following evening, Ronnie’s father visits Gwen at the school after hours, obviously drunk. He tells her that Ronnie made a miraculous recovery and that he and his mother have left Heddaby for good. Gwen believes that she and Linda’s grandmother made a bargain: the old witch would release Ronnie from her spell providing that the boy was taken away from Heddaby so he could no longer pursue her granddaughter. The father then storms out, determined to visit the grandmother himself and find out the truth. The next morning, he turns up dead.
As the the drama unfolds, Gwen becomes increasingly unstable. She is shaken by the death and mysterious circumstances surrounding it. She goes to the river, where the man was found drowned, and discovers that tell-tale signs of a body being dragged through the mud to the water, along with the footprints of multiple people. While she wanders up and down the bank, trying to understand what’s happening, she is bombarded by a stampede of sheep being chased by Stephanie’s dogs. The footprints are conveniently gone under the onslaught of hooves.
Stephanie insists that Gwen stay with her and Alan and calls a doctor to care for her injuries. That night, Gwen dreams that she is being attacked by the African witch doctors again and suffers another breakdown.
The narrative has set Gwen up as teetering just on the edge of stability from the beginning, but it’s clear at this point that someone is gaslighting her. She finds herself in a nursing home, with no memory of anything that happened after she left Africa, her room and care being paid for by “friends” whom her doctor refuses to name. When she slowly begins to regain her memory she is clever enough to distrust her doctor and feigns continued amnesia until she gets an opportunity to make a break for it. Gwen may be a somewhat hapless heroine at times, but she proves here that she is more resourceful than we’ve been giving her credit for.
Back in Heddaby, Gwen is taken back in by Stephanie and Alan. That night she is lead to a clandestine ceremony where she is unwillingly initiated into some kind of coven, made up of Heddaby locals and lead by Stephanie herself in colorful pagan garb. Now that she considers Gwen to be “one of us,” she shares with her the secrets she’s been keeping all this time.
Here is where things take an interesting twist. So many times in supernatural films we see women looking for eternal life for the same old reason: eternal beauty. Female audiences are consistently fed the lie that we must be beautiful, young, and desirable to men or else we are worthless, and that the pursuit of this superficial worth is more important than anything else. It’s a depressing pattern.
Stephanie is seeking eternal life, yes, but not because she wants to be young and beautiful. She wants to preserve her mind, her intelligence, her talents — think of the things she could accomplish with another lifetime. She wants to live to see the 21st Century, to continue to learn and share her knowledge and insight with the world. Again, Hammer isn’t one for subversion and all of this would be delightfully refreshing if Stephanie’s endgame didn’t come at the expense of another woman: young Linda. Stephanie dismisses the girl as an “idiot” whose only worth will come when she is a host for the older woman’s life force through an ancient ceremony. The ritual requires a virgin under 15 years of age, explaining why it was so important that Ronnie and Linda be kept apart lest her “purity” become compromised.
The film builds a slow burn tension that rises to new heights in the final scenes. Stephanie leads a ritual of obviously drugged followers convulsing to a tribal beat. All of this leads up to, ultimately, nothing; when Stephanie’s defeat comes, it’s too quick and appallingly anticlimactic. The witch is dead and everyone else seems to live happily ever after, but it all falls flat.
The audience is left to answer for themselves the question: did Stephanie really yield any supernatural powers at all? The locals certainly believed she did. With a combination of persuasion, small town ignorance and superstition, and a dose of hallucinogenic drugs, Stephanie could have easily convinced the residents of Heddaby that she was a witch. She seemed to genuinely believe it herself. She was convinced that the ritual would be successful, that she could really transfer to life force into Linda’s body and continue to live for decades to come, and when Gwen disrupted the ritual, Stephanie believed everything was ruined. But if there were no supernatural powers at play, why did she drop dead? Did the frenzy of the ritual and the shock of seeing her ambitions crushed simply take a toll on her heart? Or did she really conjure up dark forces that claimed her soul? And if the only influence she held over her flock were through roofies and the power of suggestion, why did they all immediately snap out of their trance as soon as she died?
There’s no clear answer and it’s probably better that way. Sometimes it’s better to leave a few mysteries unsolved.
Overall, The Witches is not a bad film. The tension that builds over the course of the story is somewhat diminished by the disappointing payoff, but it stands as a solid prerequisite to the influx of folk horror that would come in the following years.
It’s also a uniquely female-driven entry in Hammer’s repertoire, where most female leads are either victim or vixen, to either be saved from the male villain or destroyed by the male hero. In The Witches, women are both hero and villain and need no help from men; indeed, the men are mostly passive characters, most of whom are under the control of the villain Stephanie, save for Ronnie, who falls victim and is disposed of, and Alan, who haplessly aides his sister — and who seems to be fully aware and not under the influence of drugs all the while — and drowns his guilt in his faith. He plays no role in saving the day. Gwen may waffle at times but she single-handedly puts the pieces of the mystery together and does the dirty work to save Linda and the people of Heddaby from Stephanie’s reign of terror. The film is hardly progressive, especially from a 21st Century perspective, but it is a distinctly female film in a very male-driven genre. To me, that alone makes it worth watching.