• The Witches (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: March 19th, 2019.
    Director: Cyril Frankel
    Cast: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Duncan Lamont, Gwen Frangcon-Davies
    Year: 1966
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    The Witches – Movie Review:

    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.

    The Witches – Blu-ray Review:

    Shout! Factory brings The Witches to Blu-ray on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen transfer properly framed at 1.66.1. The transfer generally looks quite good. Detail is nice, there’s solid texture here too. The colors are reproduced faithfully and we get strong black levels as well. There might be a teeny tiny bit of noise reduction applied, but there’s still a fair amount of natural film grain visible here. Otherwise, no complaints, the movie looks good.

    There are no issues with the English language DTS-HD Mono 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. Optional subtitles are offered up in English.

    Exclusive to this release is a new commentary track from film historian Ted Newsom. It’s an enjoyable track that spends a fair amount of time, and rightly so, discussing Joan Fontaine’s involvement in the picture. It also covers the locations, the directorial style, where Hammer was at during this part of their boom years, some of the supporting players that pop up on the screen and plenty more. Newsom knows his stuff and he delivers a lot of information in an engaging and listenable style.

    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.

    Rounding out the extras are a pair of trailers, a tv spot, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection.

    The Witches – 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. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release is a very good one, presenting the film in great shape and with some decent extra features too. Recommended!

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

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. John Bernhard's Avatar
      John Bernhard -
      Looks like the old transfer, meh...movie is not any great shakes either.
      This could certainly look better. New transfer seems to have slightly better contrast.

      old cap from SC Blu review