Also known as The Witches, this Hammer production has Joan Fontaine, as schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield, who falls back into black magic in an English village, after a narrow escape with similar stuff in Africa. Other villagers include Alan and Stephanie Bax (Alec McCowan and Kay Walsh), Sally Benson (Ann Bell), students Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), Linda’s grandma Granny Rigg (Gwen F. Davies), and Ronnie Dowsett (John Collin), and school employee Valerie Creek (Michele Dotrice).
We zoom on an African village surrounded by a hostile bunch of witch doctors. The school where Gwen’s posted is quickly evacuated by the local guys, who try to warn her. She insists that voodoo isn’t a big deal; but just like that the witch doctors literally burst in. In what must be completely authentic gear, these are frightening presences: the masks are gigantic as well as otherworldly, and the whole effect hides almost everything human underneath.
Well, then the credits roll, a little too soon for me; as the beginning is by far the best part of the movie. Anyway, soon we’re in England, as Gwen successfully interviews with Alan for a teaching position at his private school. Valerie welcomes her when she arrives in the village; she meets Mr. Dowsett as well. Everything’s bright, happy, and hunky-dory. She inquiries about the Bax’s whereabouts.
Time to pay a visit. Gwen meets Stephanie “I think you’ll like it here.” So far, so good. But Alan, who sometimes wears clerical garb, actually has no church. Hmm, suspicious, no? He does explain to Gwen how he “failed” at being a priest. Fast-forward to Gwen teaching class. She takes roll with the older kids–isn’t it odd that Linda has a doll? Gwen’s colleague Sally Benson (Ann Bell) seems ok. At the butcher, we have to see a poor rabbit skinned. Not so okay. Plus he wears a straw hat, c. 1910.
The Ronnie-Linda romance is frowned on by some busybodies. But, adding fuel to the fire, Gwen gets a message “Linda Rigg’s Granny treats her something crool” Ronnie explains that grandma put the girl’s hand into some nasty machine. “He’s no good that boy…I won’t have him messin’ around with my Linda.”
Leaving Linda’s, mom sets their cat after Gwen. In a meeting with Ronnie’s parents, she recommends that he go to a boarding school–apparently, he’s gifted, or maybe the opposite. Ronnie gets a doll for Linda, to complete a set–like Ken and Barbie. Linda has to be Galileo for a school play; she isn’t much into that; and while collecting the props Valerie gives her a dirty look. But Linda goes prancing off with Ronnie. Who’s this mumbling incantations? Linda’s mom. Next thing we know, Ronnie is “took bad in the night” (dude’s in a coma).
As the class is doing a different play–in a sheep pasture–the now voodoo-enhanced Ken doll is discovered in a tree. Gwen ponders it with Stephanie. On a rainy day, Gwen imagines that a feather duster is a voodoo mask. Valerie comforts her, sort of. Driving with Gwen, Ronnie’s mom vilifies her for “meddling” with Ronnie. Then Gwen hears he’s packed off to Wales. His dad thinks that his wife has struck some sort of “bargain” with Linda’s mom. That night, Mr. Dowsett turns up dead.
Gwen and Stephanie go to the pond, looking for evidence, I suppose. The police want to talk to her, as she’s probably the last one to see him alive. More weird night terrors, as she dreams (imagines?) that she sees one of those creepy African masks floating about. She wakes up in a hospital (more like an asylum) “You had a recurrence of the breakdown you had in Africa.” Great. “You’re the one who lost her memory” she learns from the other residents. Don’t exactly know what happened; I’d lose my memory too if I didn’t know where I was, or how long I’d been there.
Another surprise: a little girl brings in a doll that’s reminiscent of Linda’s voodoo version. Dr. Wallis (Leonard Rossiter) tells her she’s being sent to another nursing home; but, acting fast, she cunningly escapes with a tradesman. She’s ‘made’ by a local as she gets near home, the school that is. How did Dr. Wallis get there ahead of her? Stephanie stands up for Gwen against Wallis. Anyway, Stephanie takes her in. Soon enough, she’s off to see what’s up with the Rigg’s. Linda’s mom is jumpy, and vague about Linda’s whereabouts.
That night, Gwen sees people milling about in the graveyard. She wants to investigate, but she gets more than she bargains for. A full-dress, Latin-chanting coven of witches “I’m sorry about all the drama out there” says head-witch Stephanie. Some friend that Stephanie. Indeed Mrs. Rigg cursed Ronnie. Anyway, back from their crypt sojourn, Stephanie shows Gwen a 14th century German tome on ye olde black arts. Well, it seems that Linda is going to be initiated/sacrificed or whatnot (a Sabbat, they say).
Meanwhile, Alan pretends to be normal. Going over witch protocol–on tape, no less–we learn that Linda uniquely qualifies as a sacrifice (as a less than fifteen-year-old virgin, plus, I guess, Satan doesn’t want to bother with unattractive girls). Stephanie puts on her viking helmet, as Linda waits in the crypt. Pretty good Black Mass stuff; the participants look like unfortunate sideshow folks. Why is Latin the lingua franca of the devil? I would think something pagan would work better.
Anyway, Stephanie invokes something/someone and passes around a gross handful of mud, err, chili con carne? Shouldn’t it be dark down there? Must be 120 watt torches. Linda is led into the middle of all these disgusting creeps. I think the problem is not black magic per se, but these villagers they just can’t handle the fact that she’s not joining the dirty and ugly club (Valerie must be suspect too).
At the last second, Gwen slashes her wrist and wipes the blood on Witch Stephanie: apparently this short-circuits Satan’s power. Stephanie is done for, and Linda’s saved. Mrs. Riggs mom tootles Linda away. A sort of celebratory scene at the start of a new school year. Forget that boring stuff–I’ll take a witchcraft course.
This starts off with strong horror, levels off in a placid sort of mystery, then just gets campy. The witch coven stuff is about as deep and dark as the two skits the kids put on. With the same level of cartoonish props. Just to cite one item: Stephanie’s cloak gives her all the medieval witch authenticity of unsaleable curb-alert leftovers. It doesn’t even register as clothing. Same with that gooey brew she passes around.
These guys are supposed to be witches, but, other than their wigged-out look, there’s nothing interesting or compelling about them. In short, after the first five minutes, there’s nothing even remotely scary going on. Criminal, yes. But we never really learn what became of Ronnie’s dad. There’s the makings of a spooky crime mystery, but that plot’s never fleshed out.
The crucial phase of Gwen’s (apparent) abduction isn’t really handled that well either. Since she’s getting in the way of the witches’ plan to mess with Linda, she’s persona non grata. Possibly she was drugged so that she goes from the nightmares to nursing home without a squeek. That all adds up, but we’re left to assume or fill in the blanks too much. And given all that, why doesn’t Wallis try to get her back? Maybe because the Baxs figure it’s too late for Gwen to help Linda–more assumptions needed.
Lastly, what is the connection between African witch doctors and English witches? If it’s all one in the same, why a European source for the English witchcraft rituals, which, most tellingly, are all conducted in Latin. Is there a worldwide confederation of black magic? Maybe so. But how could the devil be the same among people of different religious backgrounds?
With all that said, the performances were pretty good, particularly the two teenage roles. They just didn’t have enough to do, especially once the so-called witchcraft started in earnest. The school, and the village generally provides a great backdrop for horror happenings. But almost all of that stuff occurs in the relatively nondescript crypt.
Well, you can be sure that Farmermouse wasn’t keen on that poor little rabbit’s fate. He’ll rate The Devil’s Own five dolls, with heads attached, please. 5/10