• Witches, The (Der Teufel tanzt um Mitternacht)



    Witches, The (Der Teufel tanzt um Mitternacht)
    Released by: Anolis Entertainment
    Released on: September 8th, 2017.
    Director: Cyril Frankel
    Cast: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Duncan Lamont, Gwen Frangcon-Davies
    Year: 1966

    The Movie:

    Originally released in 1966 (under the alternate title of The Devil’s Own in the United States), The Witches, directed by Cyril Frankel and written by Nigel Kneale (based on the novel by Norah Lofts) stars Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield. When we first meet her, this English schoolteacher is doing missionary work in Africa when she’s accosted by the witch doctors of a local native tribe. This even, understandably, leaves her quite shaken and she soon returns to England to take a new job in a small village in the English countryside.

    Shortly after her arrival, she meets would-be priest named Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) and his sister, Stephanie (Kay Walsh), a writer that Gwen is quite fond of. They strike up a friendship and soon Gwen learns why there’s no church in the town – at least no functioning church… it was burned down years ago, through the ruins do remain. As Gwen becomes more familiar with the town and its inhabitants, she can’t help but notice that one of her students, Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting) has a strange attachment to a doll and that her grandmother (Gwen Frangcon-Davies) behaves rather strangely, what with her pet black cat and penchant for old ways. Once people in the town start turning up dead, Gwen knows that all is not as it seems…

    Cyril Frankel’s direction is controlled but the pacing here is slow. The movie starts off with a pretty serious bang – that sequence in which poor Ms. Mayfield is terrorized by a witchdoctor in full tribal dress makes a seriously bizarre impression – but from there the movie definitely takes its time getting back to the horror that should play such a big part in its effectiveness. There’s something to be said for character development, however, and we do get plenty of that as we not only get to know Gwen but many of the quirky characters that live in the town she now calls home. Fontaine (who took home an Oscar for her work on Hitchcock’s Suspicion), who was by her own account quite unhappy with the conditions on set and her English co-stars, delivers a good performance. She’s sympathetic enough and handles the role with ease. Kay Walsh, however, acts circles around her. Part of the reason that happens is because Stephanie Bax is just a more interesting character but Walsh seems more committed to her part and more enthusiastic about it as well. Supporting work from McCowen and particularly Frangcon-Davies is also quite good. Interestingly enough, this would prove to be Fontaine’s last film appearance, she’d work only in television after this production, retiring in the mid-nineties and then passing away in 2013 at ninety-six years of age (a good run by anyone’s standards).

    Production values are decent. The cinematography by Arthur Brant is good, there are nice colorful costumes used in the film’s finale rather effectively and the mix of studio and location work gels together quite nicely. The score from Richard Rodney Bennett is decent as well. Things explode a little too suddenly towards the film’s end, as the film transitions from a ‘slow burn’ to an extravaganza of occult craziness, but all in all The Witches is a more than decent movie, if not one of Hammer’s best.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Anolis Entertainment offers up The Witches in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.66.1 widescreen on a 50GB disc and the image quality is excellent. The film retains its natural grain but there’s virtually no print damage to note, the image is very clean in that regard. Color reproduction looks very nice and we get deep, solid black levels as well. Texture and detail are really strong and frequently quite impressive – you’ll really notice this on some of the more ornate props and costumes that are used in the film and in the detail evident in facial close up shots. There are no noticeable issues with any compression artifacts to note, the film is given a strong bit rate here, nor are there any problems with any noise reduction or edge enhancement. All in all, this is a very strong transfer.

    Audio options are provided in both English and German language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono tracks with optional subtitles provided for the feature in German only. There are no issues with the English language track on this disc. Dialogue is easily discernable, the score sounds nice and there are no noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion to report.

    Extras are pretty extensive for this release, staring with an audio commentary courtesy of Anolis’ regular Hammer experts, Dr. Rolf Giesen and Uwe Sommerlad spoken in their native German. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles provided for this.

    Carried over from the British Blu-ray release is the forty-two minute featurette Hammer Glamour. Here we get the chance to sit down with Hammer leading ladies Valerie Leon, Caroline Munroe, Martine Beswicke, Vera Day and Madeline Smith for a retrospective look back at the work they did for the studio in its heyday. It’s a welcome addition to the disc filled with some pertinent clips, archival stills and photos, and of course the firsthand accounts of the experiences these ladies had working on their respective contributions to the studio’s legacy.

    Also included on the disc is the World Of Hammer episode Wicked Women. This one clocks in at approximately twenty-five minutes in length and like the other episodes in the series, it’s mostly made up of clips from various Hammer productions with some narration from the late, great Oliver Reed. It won’t tell experts much that they don’t already know but it’s a nice retrospective that focuses on some of the more dangerous female characters to have appeared throughout the production company’s storied history.

    Outside of that we get an American theatrical trailer for the feature, a few TV Spots, some still galleries, menus and chapter selection.

    The Final Word:

    The Witches is good middle-tier Hammer Horror. It’s a bit of a slow burn and it goes a little off the rails towards the end, but Fontaine delivers nice work as does the supporting cast. The locations are nice and if the story doesn’t move at a lightning quick pace, it does at least manage to hold out attention throughout thanks to the good acting and nice production values. Anolis’ Blu-ray release is a very good one, presenting the film in beautiful shape and with some decent extra features too. Recommneded!

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!