Sunday, February 7, 2016

QUATERMASS 2 aka ENEMY FROM SPACE

Val Guest, 1957
Starring: Brian Donlevy, John Longden, Sidney James

Meteorites begin crashing to Earth and Professor Quatermass — who is busy trying to get a Moon colonization project off the ground — decides to investigate. He finds his way to a strange factory, which seems to have borrowed his plans for the Moon colony, though he meets with resistance because operations there are top secret. One of the meteorites is filled with an unidentified gas that seems to possess Quatermass’s associate, who is then taken away by guards from the factory. Quatermass teams up with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax to find out what happened to his friend and they discover a terrifying alien conspiracy that may go all the way to the British government.

The sequel to Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment is once again based on Nigel Kneale’s excellent BBC series and, like the first film, manages to be surprisingly faithful to Kneale’s script.  Kneale was unhappy with the casting of hardboiled (and allegedly alcoholic) American actor Brian Donlevy as Professor Quatermass in The Quatermass Xperiment and subsequently refused the studio’s request to use the character in their loose follow up X the Unknown, but managed to get more input with Quatermass 2. Of course director Val Guest — who returned from the first film — also had a hand in the script and made one crucial change: while the series’ climax has Quatermass traveling to outer space to defeat the aliens, Quatermass 2 has the slightly more believable premise of the protagonists firing an unmanned rocket to blow up the alien base in space.

Admittedly, there are things about Quatermass 2 that are arguably better than The Quatermass Xperiment. First and foremost, it’s a relief that Brian Donlevy has settled into the role a bit more comfortably. I intensely dislike him in the first film, but the sequel is so fast paced and action packed that he fits into the grand scheme of things a bit more smoothly. In The Quatermass Xperiment, he spends most of his time yelling at people and ordering everyone around, but he’s more appealing here as the odd man out; he has trouble getting anyone to believe him and, for once, is unable to constantly get his own way. 

He also makes a decent pair with John Longden (Alias John Preston), who replaced Jack Warner (The Ladykillers) as Inspector Lomax. I do have a serious soft spot for sympathetic Scotland Yard-type characters though. But the film is basically stolen by Sidney James (The Lavender Hill Mob) as a hilariously drunken reporter who is the only member of the press to believe in Quatermass’s theory of an alien conspiracy and who has moments of brilliance that allow Quatermass to take him seriously. Also keep your eyes peeled for Hammer regular Michael Ripper — my favorite of the studio’s stock company — fresh off his first appearance in a Hammer genre film with the previous year’s X the Unknown

Similar to the previous year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass 2 is concerned with hysteria and government conspiracy, apt subject matter during McCarthyism and the Red Scare. The film has the same assured sense of direction, moody cinematography, and documentary-like style that Val Guest displayed in the first film, but with a larger budget and plenty of location shooting. Notably, this is the first time production designer Bernard Robinson would work with Hammer, though it’s obviously a far cry from his colorful work on the studio’s later Gothic horror films. The factory set is quite fun — complete with its own bio-dome — and allows for a breathy conclusion where Quatermass and co. are forced to lock themselves in and defend against an angry mob — a later staple of Hammer’s horror films. 

All in all, Quatermass 2 comes recommended, particularly for fans of sci-fi horror crossovers. In retrospect, it feels like a blend of Doctor Who and The X-Files, and I would say it’s worth watching even if you haven’t yet seen The Quatermass Xperiment or any of Kneale’s serials. Pick it up on DVD, though I’d love for Hammer and the BBC to release a joint box set that contains all three films and all the serials. Quatermass 2 was somewhat ignored because it was released in the same year as The Curse of Frankenstein, the film that would set the course for Hammer’s future. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

X THE UNKNOWN

Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey, 1956
Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman

Soldiers located a mysterious source of radioactivity in the Scottish highlands, which leads to a deadly explosion. Some of the men are killed, while others are suffering from radiation burns, and a strange pit in the Earth begins to open. Dr. Royston, an investigator with the Atomic Energy Laboratory, is called in to investigate with the help of Mr. McGill, a security consultant. When a local boy and a hospital intern are killed after suffering from radiation burns, Royston and McGill surmise that a radioactive creature has emerged from the Earth’s core and is stalking the area, desperate for food.

An unofficial sequel to Hammer’s horror/sci-fi breakout film, The Quatermass Xperiment, this tamer entry also received an X-rating — probably thanks to some grisly scenes of burning flesh — and the studio wisely capitalized on that with the film’s title. But make no mistake, this is the same blend of sci-fi and horror that would character the Quatermass trilogy and the studio’s final sci-fi film, The Damned (minus the latter’s weird teddy boy subplot). When Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale wouldn’t allow Hammer free reign to use his beloved character, they basically just made a similar film to The Quatermass Xperiment but replaced the miscast Brian Donlevy with wholesome-looking American actor Dean Jagger of White Christmas and Vanishing Point fame. 

Jagger’s not particularly heroic hero, Dr. Royston, is thankfully not as abrasive as Donlevy’s unfortunate portrayal of Quatermass, but he really does lack personality. If X the Unknown is inferior to The Quatermass Xperiment, it is in two points: the absence of a truly compelling protagonist and antagonist. The film perhaps unwisely avoids the kind of hysteria and panic that would make Quatermass and the Pit such a triumph and the characters are all entirely too calm and civil. While there is some solid acting from Jagger and his primary costar, Leo McKern (who I have loved from the moment I saw Ladyhawke as a child), the two characters simply get along too well. There is not enough tension or anxiety between the central characters and don’t even get me started on the monster. (But do keep an eye out for an early appearance from the beloved Michael Ripper, soon to be a Hammer regular). 

X the Unknown also lacks The Quatermass Xperiment’s use of a compelling villain in the form of actor Richard Wordsworth, whose gradually transforming astronaut is a creature of both sympathy and terror. Despite the fact that it’s moody and atmospheric, the movie is so low budget that the monster barely appears and then only as a radioactive, vaguely shiny blob. This is a strange precursor to films like the superior The Blob (1958), Japanese atomic horror film The H-Man (1958), and Caltiki, the Immoral Monster (1959) from giallo forerunner Ricardo Freda

The monster is not exactly alien life, but competing life on earth that has come from deep within the planet’s core. The film’s scariest moments actually involve man encountering nature — such as when the boys go into the woods at night and when a soldier descends into a seemingly bottomless fissure in the earth — and while I love this early folk horror premise, it falls flat because of the “monster.” More than anything, it reminds me of the blancmange at Wimbledon skit from Monty Python and the Flying Circus. And speaking of Monty Python, one of their directors, Ian MacNaughton, actually appears here as a Scottish soldier named — drumroll — Corporal Haggis. I thought I was imagining things, but IMDB confirms that that’s actually the character’s name. 

This first feature script from the studio’s most popular writer, Jimmy Sangster, also plays fast and loose with science — radiation in this case — and Royston figures out a way to kill the monster with radio waves, which apparently neutralize the radiation that keeps it alive, but cause a spectacular explosion that miraculously harms no humans in the process. The great Joseph Losey — then blacklisted from Hollywood and working in England — began directing the film, but was replaced by Leslie Norman due to an illness. Luckily Losey would return to Hammer for The Damned, while Norman was apparently so widely disliked on set that even though he helmed a competent film, well-received film, he never made another movie with Hammer.

X the Unknown is an enjoyable, if dated effort, though I think I can only recommend it to fans of ‘50s horror. Though it loses momentum and focus in the second half, it’s plenty entertaining and takes itself quite seriously with some help from moody cinematography and composer James Bernard, who essentially reprised his score from The Quatermass Xperiment with equally chilling results. Check it out on DVD, but don’t expect it to be quite as magical as the Quatermass trilogy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955)

Val Guest, 1955
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Richard Wordsworth, Margia Dean

Professor Quatermass is overseeing the test runs of a rocket he personally designed, when something goes horribly wrong. After a trip to space, the rocket crashes into rural England and out of the three pilots aboard, two are missing and the sole survivor, Victor Carroon, is catatonic. While Quatermass and a team of scientists are studying Carroon, he begins to horribly transform and soon breaks out of the hospital. Quatermass and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax begin a desperate manhunt after Quatermass realizes that Carroon’s new alien form is giving off spores with the potential to destroy the entire planet. 

Known in the US as The Creeping Unknown, this first film in Hammer’s Quatermass trilogy was a major turning point for the studio — and for British horror in general. Based on the BBC television serial penned by sci-fi great Nigel Kneale, the film of course condenses the events of the serial, but also made two major changes. The first, and most grating, is the casting of American actor and film noir regular Brian Donlevy (Hangmen Also Die) as Professor Quatermass, turning Neale’s thoroughly British scientist into a rude, ball-busting American. He looks more like a gangster or an irate insurance claims adjuster than he does a scientist and chokes on some of his dialogue. In one scene, he says to Victor Carroon’s distraught wife, “There’s no room for personal feelings in science!” This is basically the ‘50s sci-fi equivalent of “There’s no crying in baseball.” Harsh and unlikable, Donlevy is completely miscast — Peter Cushing would have been a much better fit, though he wasn’t yet a Hammer star at this point — but he is still unable to ruin the film.

Named The Quatermass Xperiment to capitalize on the “X” rating certificate the film received from the British censor board, surprisingly little of the monster is actually seen in the film, but there’s a fantastic sense of atmosphere. The competent Val Guest went on to direct one of my favorite early Hammer films, The Abominable Snowman (1957), as well as sci-fi classics The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Though he keeps the monster primarily offscreen — a la Val Lewton a decade earlier — there are some fittingly grisly moments, such as a murder in an elevator and a bleak scene in a local zoo where the monster wreaks havoc on the animals. Though it isn’t quite scary (or gory) by modern standards, I can see why this was Hammer’s first major breakthrough, a success of such proportions that the studio not only produced a small run of sci-fi films, but began almost exclusively making horror films.

Character actor Richard Wordsworth (The Curse of the Werewolf) is the heart and soul of the film, giving a spectacular performance as the unfortunate Victor. Though his character ultimately transforms into something non-human, he gives a physical performance full of pathos and believability. Many of these early sci-fi horrors — particularly the British ones — have a romantic relationship at their center, but The Quatermass Xperiment doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on this, but merely uses Victor’s relationship with his wife — and her desperation to get him away from Quatermass — it to humanize Victor and elegantly move the plot forward. He is unable to kill his adoring wife, even though he is transforming into something alien and monstrous, and runs away from her in horror. 

Aside from the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass, Guest’s second major change away from the serial is the conclusion, spectacularly set at Westminster Abbey. In the serial, Quatermass is able to remind Victor of his last, lingering vestiges of humanity, and in order to save the planet, he kills himself. But in the film version, Victor has become completely alien and Quatermass electrocutes him to death with the help of a conveniently placed television crew. This change makes The Quatermass Xperiment less of a human story and more of a monster movie, but the concept of a transformed astronaut was obviously horrifying enough to inspire a number of similar films in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

This isn’t the only reason why it’s considered a minor classic. Val Guest keeps the pace moving at a brisk clip and despite the occasional moments of scientific exposition, there is a steady sense of suspense, even claustrophobia, to the proceedings. The film is an almost equal blend of horror, science fiction, and murder mystery; Scotland Yard even gets involved because they think that Victor may have murdered the two missing astronauts. The Quatermass Xperiment also has a decidedly bleak note thanks to Quatermass himself, who exploits Victor and, at the film’s conclusion, is determined to start his experiments all over again.

The Quatermass Xperiment comes highly recommended and anyone who enjoys a blend of sci-fi and horror will definitely want to seek it out. Pick it up on Blu-ray and I promise you’ll be able to get past Donlevy’s heavy-handedness and, if this is your first exposure to Quatermass, you might even enjoy him. The film boasts plenty of delights, including some enjoyable effects, wonderful atmosphere, and a particularly fantastic score from Hammer’s regular composer, James Bernard, which would set the stage for the rest of their sci-fi films.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE

Terence Fisher, 1953
Starring: Stephen Murray, Barbara Payton, James Hayter, John Van Eyssen

“I didn’t ask to be born so I have the right to die.”

In a small, English village, childhood friends Bill and Robin grow into determined scientists and develop an experimental device that can duplicate matter. The genius of the pair, Bill, is in love with another of their childhood friends, the beautiful Lena, but Lena prefers Robin. When Lena and Robin marry, after the pair announce their scientific success, the forlorn Bill becomes determined to alter the Reproducer machine so that it can replicate living beings. With Lena’s reluctant help, he makes a twin, who he names Helen, and hopes she will love him. But something about Helen is not quite right…

Hammer’s first sci-fi film might not quite belong in my British horror series, but Four Sided Triangle is a key early piece of the puzzle and marks their transition from a studio who produced primarily adventure and suspense films to one of the world’s biggest horror studios. Based on a novel by William F. Temple, there is also much to connect the film with Hammer’s first big hit, The Curse of Frankenstein, far more than just the presence of Hammer’s chief director, Terence Fisher. It also has a lot in common with Hammer’s most important sci-fi series, the Quatermass trilogy that would soon follow. For one thing, Four Sided Triangle has little in the way of special effects but much in the way of dialogue.

The style of Four Sided Triangle — basically a black and white radio drama captured on film — might seem unfamiliar to fans of Hammer’s Gothic horror, but it fits in perfectly with their other sci-fi films from the period like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X the Unknown (1956), and Quatermass 2 (1957). The laboratory sets are charming and it’s easy to see how Fisher — who unusually cowrote this film in addition to directing it — further developed much of Four Sided Triangle for his early Frankenstein films. But while the Quatermass films place an equal emphasis on science and horror, Four Sided Triangle is far more concerned with melodrama and human tragedy than it is with the legitimate workings of science.

I’m not exactly giving away any spoilers — the film is presented as somewhat of a tragedy from its opening frames, as there’s a preachy biblical quote about man’s perhaps doomed scientific dabbling, and the proceedings are narrated by the village doctor. He is clearly telling the story after the fact and speaks sympathetically about all of the characters, though particularly Bill. Though far more human than Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein, Bill is an early example of one of the studio’s beloved stock characters: the genius who does not begin as a villain, but is driven there by his obsessions.

This film has some of Hammer’s most interesting, if damaged characters. Bill’s abusive childhood is revealed and it offers something of an explanation for his tormented nature. His obsession for Lena is deeply connected with this, though it’s mind boggling that she goes along with his plans. She is also psychologically tormented — admitting to the doctor that she longs for suicide — and her desire to duplicate herself seems to stem from an inability to chose between Bill and Robin. It’s undeniably strange to see a science fiction film from this period with such well developed themes of love, sexual obsession, and personal torment, but it’s easy to see how this would go on to influence the more complex sci-fi of the ‘80s in films like David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers. And I wish The Four Sided Triangle had seen these themes through to their logically perverse ends, but it only goes so far as Helen’s suicide attempt — because she is also in love with Robin instead of Bill — and Bill’s ultimate plan to erase her memory to make her love him.

Though it won’t be for everyone, I really do have to recommend Four Sided Triangle. Pick it up on DVD if you like classic sci-fi or if you want to see the origins of some of the tropes that would emerge in Hammer’s later years, including their first instance of conclusion by fire. Though they would use this repeatedly over the years, the burning of Bill’s lab neatly — though frustratingly — concludes the film, as the kindly doctor and Robin (John Van Eyssen who would soon reappear in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula) realize that Helen has been killed, but Lena has survived. A little ambiguity wouldn’t have killed them. The film’s incessant moralizing is a little annoying, but it’s hard to find a ‘50s sci-fi film without at least a little of this included. And regardless, it sets up some early philosophical implications about doubles, clones, and twin-ship that would be explored later down the line in ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi horror.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER

Peter Sykes, 1976
Starring: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Nastassja Kinski

"It is not heresy and I will not recant!”

While on a book tour, American writer John Verney is met with a very strange request. A man named Henry Beddows pleads with Verney to pick up his teenage daughter, Catherine, from the airport and to make sure no harm — physical or spiritual — should come to her. Verney specializes in occult topics and is mystified by Beddows’ request, but is even more baffled when Catherine turns out to be a nun in a strange, heretical order. The head of her church, called Children of the Lord, is a former Roman Catholic priest, Michael Rayner, who was excommunicated. Rayner is determined to take Catherine back to the order, while Verney’s task of protecting Catherine becomes increasingly dangerous.

Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name, this is essentially the opposite of Hammer’s first Wheatley adaptation, the excellent The Devil Rides Out. Panned by fans and critics for the last few decades, the film is a misguided mess that apparently enraged Wheatley so much that he swore never to be involved with Hammer again. But I’m going to throw out a controversial opinion: I actually really like this movie. Is it good? No, not really. But is it entertaining? Absolutely. It’s a little baffling to me that while England was a major producer of what’s generally known as Satanic/folk horror, the country’s largest horror studio, Hammer, all but neglected this genre, really only contributing three films: The Witches, The Devil Rides Out, and this disaster.

But it has a certain undeniable appeal for fans of trash cinema. For instance, there’s some choice dialogue, including lines like, "98% of so called satanist are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing church yards and use the devil as an excuse for getting some sex, but then there is that other 2%, I'm not so sure about them” (!!!). The film’s attempt to take itself seriously and strip away any of the camp present in The Witches or the romance of The Devil Rides Out that provides some emotional depth and lightheartedness results in a lot of unintentional humor. And overall, this is a pretty mean spirited affair with some nasty scenes of gore and loads of unsympathetic characters. If you can divorce this from Hammer’s classic output and instead consider this as a last gasp British response to films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, you might be surprised at how much you actually enjoy it.

Obviously the shining light is Sir Christopher Lee’s performance as the diabolical Father Michael Rayner, the excommunicated priest with some very sinister intentions. Lee delivers a performance full of vim and vigor and suitably menacing enough to pretty much carry the film himself — though he’s joined by one of my favorite film noir actors, the great Richard Widmark. Widmark is admittedly not performing at his personal best here and instead ranges from bored to confused, and irate for no apparent reason, but he does have some fantastic moments of scenery chewing that must be seen to be believed — nearly all of these occur during the showdowns between Widmark and Rayner, or even just Widmark against supernatural forces.

Lee and Widmark are supported by a delightfully raving Denholm Elliott and a wholesome-looking, teenage Nastassja Kinski. Her appearance is a bit controversial because she has several nude scenes, which were filmed when she was a teenager and thus underage. I’m not completely sure about how obscenity laws work — I can tell you from personal experience that that is a Google search you do not want to undertake — but I get why it was so shocking at the time. Though she seems a little vapid at times, she’s oddly perfect for the role as the clueless, naive Catherine, who has no idea that she’s about to become the vessel for Satan.

Of course, To the Devil a Daughter has a bad reputation for a reason and it’s chock full of issues. For example, the demon baby — yes, this is a thing that happens — is a flagrant new level of badness and the film would be better served to follow Val Lewton’s example and show as little of the supernatural as possible. Like Dracula A.D. 1972, the film has a contemporary feel and includes numerous exterior shots of London, but they only really serve to diffuse the sense of atmosphere. The main problem is the messy script that frequently loses steam and jumps around willy nilly from character to character. Richard Widmark was apparently very frustrated that the script was constantly re-written, often up to the day of shooting, and threaten to walk off the production several times. The characters are often given no clear motivations for their actions and things just sort of happen haphazardly. It would be much better with a smaller, more well developed cast of characters, but alas.

Peter Sykes, who also helmed Hammer’s Demons of the Mind, seems like a strange choice, but perhaps he was Hammer’s only option for what was to become their final horror film (at least until the recent revival). This was obviously trying to go bigger and better than The Devil Rides Out, but fails utterly, instead replacing that film’s class and restraint with gore, a confused plot, and some licentiousness. But, as I said, I still think it’s a really good time. Check it out on DVD, but if schlocky Satanic horror isn’t your thing, it’s probably more of a rental than a purchase.

Monday, January 25, 2016

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

Terence Fisher, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Patrick Mower, Niké Arrighi

The young, wealthy Simon Aron has become the protege of a strange, charismatic man named Mocata, the head of a circle obsessed with the occult. Simon’s oldest friends, the Duc Nicholas de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, are determined to rescue the young man, though he is in Mocata’s psychic sway. In order to save Simon, they must also rescue Tanith, a psychically sensitive young woman who is key to Mocata’s upcoming sabbath ritual, where she and Simon are supposed to receive their Satanic baptism. Though Nicholas and Rex are able to recognize Simon and Tanith from the ritual, the Devil appears and, thanks to Mocata’s instruction, is hot on their tails.

The Devil Rides Out is among Hammer’s trilogy of occult-themed films — which includes The Witches and To the Devil a Daughter — and is by far one of the best films of its kind to come out during this period. Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name, this is also one of Hammer’s first attempts to move out of Victorian England to something a bit closer to present day. Though set in the ‘20s, it has a far more modern, less stuffy feel than any of the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein films and practically races along through its running time with scenes of action, occult exposition, and some fantastic ritual sequences.

There is honestly a lot to recommend about this film. Acclaimed horror writer Richard Matheson penned the script and though he wrote everything from House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum to Burn, Witch, Burn, he didn’t write for Hammer very often. I wish they had collaborated together more often — Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) is another great example — as this is one of their standout scripts. The studio’s best director, Terence Fisher, returned to the helm one of his last times; after this he would only return for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1969) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1974).

Of course the best part of the movie is the interplay between its two stars: Christopher Lee, appearing in a rare heroic role as the Duc de Richleau, and Charles Gray as the diabolical Mocata. Lee, who is fantastic, as always, apparently convinced Hammer to pick up the film rights for the novel — which they waited to produce until just around the time Rosemary’s Baby struck terror into the hearts of moviegoers — and later claims that it was one of his favorite films. Gray’s Mocata — basically who I want to be when I grow up, sans the purple robe — is based on the Great Beast 666, Aleister Crowley, who Wheatley amazingly met a few times in the ‘20s. The silky, charismatic Mocata is one of the best villains of Satanic horror, avoiding any campiness and playing it straight with an edge of serious menace. In Wheatley’s novel, the character is more European than British, but here he the soul of mannered British aristocracy, dripping with politeness.

Lee and Gray are bolstered by some nice supporting performances from the likable Patrick Mower (Cry of the Banshee) and from Niké Arrighi (The Perfume of the Lady in Black) and Leon Greene (Flash Gordon, The Seven Percent Solution) as the doomed lovers who provide some real emotional depth to the film. And of course, anyone interested in Satanic cinema will love that the occult action is evident from the great opening credits onwards and basically never slows down. Matheson allegedly did research into some of Crowley’s own rituals for his script and delved pretty extensively into occult history. There are a variety of colorful Satanic rituals and one of the film’s best scenes involves a defensive ritual led by Christopher Lee, where the majority of the cast is stuck behind an elaborately drawn chalk circle.

It goes without saying that The Devil Rides Out comes with the highest recommendation and if you are on the fencing about delving into Hammer’s catalogue, this is a great place to start. Pick it up on region B Blu-ray — for those in the UK or with region-free players — or on region 1 DVD. I really wish Charles Gray had done more with Hammer, but he is damned enjoyable here and is one of the few actors other than Peter Cushing who is able to go toe to toe with Sir Christopher Lee.

Side note: This is one of a few films that uses the occult to provide an enforced happy ending, but for once I'm not upset about it at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

THE WITCHES

Cyril Frankel, 1966
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell

“Give me a skin for dancing in.”

Gwen is working in Africa as a missionary when she is caught in the middle of a tribal rebellion and is brutally attacked by a witchdoctor. Some time later, after she has recovered in England, she’s offered a job teaching in a small country school by wealthy local Alan Bax and his sister Stephanie. Though she first regards the village of Heddaby as idyllic, she begins to notice signs of witchcraft — for instance a boy falls ill, Gwen finds a voodoo doll, and a man is suspiciously killed — and before she knows it, she has a relapse and breaks down again, to recover a year later, convinced the citizens of the town are dangerous witches that must be stopped before a young girl is sacrificed.

One of Hammer’s most neglected films, The Witches fits in a strange place in their oeuvre. It’s not quite as theatrically supernatural as their other witchcraft films like The Devil Rides Out or To the Devil a Daughter, but borrows plenty from their more underrated suspense films such as Paranoiac and Hysteria. Released just two years before Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Witches really doesn’t even feel like a Hammer film, but is in the vein of producer Val Lewton’s films, particularly The Seventh Victim, where the horror is subtle and understated and it’s often not clear whether the threat is real or in the mind of the protagonist.

This especially doesn’t feel like a Hammer film, because it lacks any of the studio’s recurring cast members or major stars, but benefits from a great — and final — performance from Joan Fontaine. Her character of Gwen is similar to her turn as the persecuted heroine in Rebecca more than 20 years before: innocent and sweet, but canny, aware of the danger that may befall her even though no one quite believes her. Another Hitchcock actress, Kay Walsh (Stage Fright) acts as a very strange foil as the antagonist Stephanie, who is not up against Gwen, but wants to recruit her to the cause. Walsh is overshadowed by Alec McCowen (yet another Hitchcock actor, most recognizable from his brilliant turn as the inspector in Frenzy) as the strangely perverse Alan, a man who pretends to be a priest and is clearly haunted by some unspoken trauma.

These demented siblings are right out of Hammer’s suspense films — their neurotic excess is on the same plane (if not as grandiose) as Oliver Reed’s in Paranoiac — and the seemingly rational Stephanie is every bit as nuts as her brother Alan. SPOILERS: In the film’s big twist, which occurs basically ten minutes before the movie is over, is that Stephanie is the head of a local coven and wants to sacrifice a teenage girl in order to attain youth and immortality. Or some such nonsense. Gwen’s assault is a powerful specter that looms over the film and it’s a shame that the second half of the film doesn’t exploit this nearly as well as the first, where there are such quietly symbolic scenes as a local butcher enthusiastically skinning a rabbit before he seems it to Gwen. She remarks that Heddaby seems “a nice place to get over things,” and when hiring her, Alan intentionally exploits her experience in Africa, pushing her to the point of near hysteria.

The Witches exists in a strange place in terms of occult cinema history, landing in the middle of two waves, but not quite fitting in with either. It was certainly influenced by the excellent, understated British horror films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — such as Night of the Demon, The Innocents, The Haunting, and Night of the Eagle but also acts as a quiet precursor to the more explicit films later in the decade like Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Rides Out, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Wicker Man, and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Like Hammer films The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies, as well as the slightly later The Oblong Box, it maintains a strong connection to the colonial themes that seem to haunt British horror at around this time.

Nigel Kneale’s (Quatermass and the Pit, The Abominable Snowman) script — from Norah Lofts novel The Devil’s Own — originally had elements of black comedy that were later removed, which is a real shame, as I think it would have made the film’s absurdities a little easier to swallow. In addition to the unbelievable twist — where Stephanie becomes Gwen’s champion and initiates her into the coven, hoping they can perfect the ritual together — the ritual sequence is pure camp. The “orgy” is really a group of fully clothed, middle aged people performing what looks like an avant-garde dance piece. 

Thanks to these two blunders, The Witches just can’t compare with the weirder and more stylish Eye of the Devil, another nearly forgotten supernatural horror film made in Britain in the same year. With that said, it’s definitely worth watching for any Hammer completists or anyone who enjoys understated occult horrors — of which there are definitely not enough of in the world. Pick it up on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray in the UK.