Release Date(s)1966 (March 19, 2019)
Studio(s)Hammer Films/20th Century Fox (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C
Though primarily known for their Dracula and Frankenstein films, Hammer Studios would also occasionally try different things, including films like She and The Plague of the Zombies. In 1966, they gave The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own) a shot. Joan Fontaine had brought the project to the studio with the intention of starring in it while Nigel Kneale (of the Quatermass series) adapted it from its source novel by Norah Loft (aka Peter Curtis).
Posted at a mission school in Africa, Gwen (Fontaine) suffers a mental breakdown after an attack by local witch doctors. Upon her recovery, she accepts an invitation to teach at a private school in the small country village of Heddaby. While she is welcomed with open arms and seemingly beloved by one and all, she begins to notice strange things about the local townspeople and their children, leading to a dark revelation about their nightly activities.
A relatively straightforward story on the surface, the unfortunate reality is that there’s nothing particularly special about The Witches. It’s humdrum territory as Gwen unravels the mystery, which is already spoiled in the film’s title. She’s actually not all that remarkable in the role, and indeed, feels above it, with little more than a constant look of confusion on her face. However, the reveal of the mystery is completely gonzo territory. It’s the most memorable and captivating moment of the entire story, but sadly, takes over an hour of the film’s running time to get to.
Despite Fontaine’s hopefulness for the project, The Witches was an unsuccessful venture and is seen by many as one of the lesser Hammer horror productions of the period. To give it some credit, it’s not a horror film at all, but more of a supernatural suspense story. Even the marketing failed the film’s intent, selling it as a more traditional Hammer product of the era. Cult film fans have appreciated it over the years, but by and large, it’s been more or less sidelined.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of the film looks quite good. It’s unclear whether it’s a new scan or an older master, but in either case, it appears fresh enough to have been fairly recent. Grain management is handled well, if a bit uneven in spots, with lots of fine detail on display (as well as the vintage 20th Century Fox logo at the front). The color palette offers plenty of strong variety, from costumes to close-ups to outdoor scenery. Blacks are relatively deep and contrast is well-adjusted. It’s a crisp and precise presentation that only falters during optical transitions. Otherwise, it’s free of any noticeable defects.
The audio is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. It makes the most of it with clear dialogue reproduction and a strong score by Richard Rodney Bennett. Sound effects and music within the film are well-represented also, leaving no room for distortion. Everything is clean and clear, lacking damage such as hiss, crackle, or dropouts.
Extras include a new audio commentary with author and filmmaker Ted Newsom, which I found to be not all that informative and a bit too quiet at times (perhaps an additional commentator would have helped); Hammer Glamour, a 45-minute documentary about the history of Hammer and the actresses who appeared in their films, containing interviews with Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, Madeline Smith, Vera Day, and Jenny Hanley; the U.S. trailer for The Devil’s Own in HD; two black and white double feature TV spots for Prehistoric Women and The Devil’s Own, both in HD (one incorrectly listed as a trailer); and an animated still gallery with 58 images of behind-the-scenes photos, promotional stills, posters, and lobby cards. Not included from the Anchor Bay DVD release is the World of Hammer TV episode Wicked Women (which is no doubt being saved for a future Blu-ray release).
Certainly not top tier Hammer material, The Witches still has enough to it that it’s at least worth a single watch. Others are bound to get more out of it than I, and with Scream Factory’s fine presentation and bonus materials, it’s certainly the best option for viewing on home video.
– Tim Salmons