Joan Fontaine casts a spell for Hammer Horror
Scream Factory is back at it, blowing the dust off yet another film from the Hammer vaults. Last month it was the fantastical The Vengeance of She; this time they’re pulling from their more recognized horror repertoire with The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own). It features the last feature-film performance of Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Suspicion), where the genteel nature of the British countryside masks unnerving occult activity.
Haunted by the terrors of her experience with African witch-doctors, school teacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca) accepts an appointment as headmistress at the Haddaby School run by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen, Frenzy) and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh, Stage Fright). Gwen initially revels in the peacefulness she has found in the quiet English countryside but soon begins to sense “undercurrents.” Before long, a local boy falls into a coma and Gwen discovers a voodoo doll impaled by pins. The danger that follows brings her face to face with witchcraft as a series of disasters unfold and lead her to the horrible truth.
At the center of the tale is Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), a teacher who, while working in Africa, has a run in with some tribal occultists. Traumatized, she absconds to the British countryside to soothe her nerves, taking the position of headmistress in a rural country village of Heddaby. At first settled in this charming little place, she begins to notice weird occurrences such as the church being in disrepair and the presence of voodoo dolls, and hear of strange behavior amongst the townfolk. One encounter with witches would be considered unfortunate, but two?
Rather than misfortune, it’s actually a pretty regular trope in horror, to pile on the misery and paranoia and push someone to their breaking point. To really carry that off, you need an actor up to the task, and The Witches is blessed with the presence of Joan Fontaine. With a career spanning five decades, an Academy Award for best actress in 1942 for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, also having been nominated for Rebecca two years earlier, her pedigree is without question, and this film drives home her talents in what was the last feature film role she took. An empathetic woman, she gives depth to both her character as well as the mounting fears that consume her as the plot unfolds. The film is a rather subdued satanic thriller, less true horror and more of a character study of this woman’s descent. The special features of this release also reveal how Fontaine approached Hammer to make the film and secured the rights herself to Norah Loft’s book ‘The Devil’s Own’ (writing as Peter Curtis), reinforcing her clear investment in the project.
There are elements of the film that are less successful; the direction by Cyril Frankel is rather perfunctory, and the ending feels a little too much of a compromise, like punches were pulled. But the film works better as something of a time capsule, an early example of folk horror, a precursor to what The Wicker Man would go on to sear into British horror a several years later. These themes and approaches have also trickled their way into fare such as An American Werewolf in London, recently demonstrated in Gareth Evan’s Apostle, and looks to be the kind of inspiration for Ari Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommer. Rural charm and rustic oddities hiding a darkness in a society, and individuals.
The Blu-ray delivers a 1.66:1 anamorphic presentation that looks very good indeed. Detail is of a high quality, colors are natural yet vibrant, no significant damage or artifacts are evident, and the film retains a nice film like quality with no overprocessing evident. Special features, like The Vengeance of She, are impressive, especially for a film of this age and niche appreciation:
- NEW audio commentary with filmmaker/historian Ted Newsom: Stuffed with detail about the film, specifically about Fontaine’s involvement, and Hammer’s contributions in general.
- Hammer Glamour — a featurette on the women of Hammer: A documentary from 2013 which assembles a surprising number of the women from films past for candid interviews about their work, experiences, and contributions to the Hammer legacy. Running around 45 minutes, it includes Jenny Hanley, Caroline Munro, Vera Day, and more. Really puts into context how times were changing, and have changed
- U.S. trailer The Devil’s Own
- Double feature trailer Prehistoric Women and The Devil’s Own
- Still Gallery: Stills and promo images.
The Bottom Line
The Witches offers up a grand showcase for Joan Fontaine, one of the stars of a golden era of Hollywood. More than this, it’s a fascinating slice of early British folk horror, one that sows the seeds for later, more well known fare. Scream Factory again delivers a nice package that adds appreciation for the work of Hammer studios and some of their less well known features.
The Witches is available via Shout! Factory from March 19th, 2019.