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Film / The Witches (1966)

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The Witches is a 1966 Hammer Horror film directed by Cyril Frankel, starring Joan Fontaine in her final cinematic role.

She plays Gwen Mayfield, a former missionary in Africa — who was driven out by the native witch doctors. After she has recovered from her breakdown, she's asked to act as the headmistress for a school in Heddaby, a quaint little town in the countryside. Ms Mayfield is happy with the town at first... until she notices some curious behaviour from a lot of the locals. Particularly towards one of her students: 14-year-old Linda Rigg. Ms Mayfield is determined to find out the mystery of the town, even if it means confronting some sinister inner demons.

Also stars Alec McCowen as schoolmaster Alan Bax, Kay Walsh as his wife Stephanie Bax, Ingrid Brett as Linda Rigg, and British horror regular Martin Stephens in a small role as Ronnie Dowsett.

Not to be confused with the Roald Dahl novel of the same name. Or its 1990 or 2020 film adaptations.

Give me a skin for troping in...:

  • Abusive Parents: Downplayed but Granny Rigg apparently put Linda's hand in the mangle after catching her with Ronnie.
  • Actor Allusion: Joan Fontaine escaping an abusive situation to find solace in a teaching job? Hmm...
  • All Witches Have Cats: Granny Rigg indeed owns a cat.
  • Ambiguously Gay: The coding is there for Stephanie, who is an unmarried older woman that lives with her brother, with a short haircut and a very dull, masculine wardrobe compared to Ms Mayfield. She's also very devoted to the latter, insisting on a First-Name Basis and acting very affectionately towards her. Her desire for Ms Mayfield to help her in the ritual sounds rather like a lover wanting their partner's approval.
  • Arc Words: "Give me a skin for dancing in".
  • Arcadia: Heddaby appears to be this. It isn't. But possibly by the end.
  • Bait the Dog: Stephanie spends the first two acts as a seemingly kind and friendly person who is Ms Mayfield's confidant. Then it turns out she's the head of the coven, willing to make a teenage boy slip into a coma, drown an innocent man and sacrifice a young girl.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
    • Stephanie Bax is a curious spin on the trope. While revealed to be the coven head, her friendship towards Gwen is genuine and she still wants her to join them.
    • Valerie would probably be a straighter example. While she puts on an air of being a nice helpful maid, something is definitely eerie about her.
  • Black Magic: Well duh.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: A justified example. Stephanie tells Gwen her entire plan, including what would be needed to stop the ritual. This is because she believes Gwen is a kindred spirit or at least won't try to stop her. Gwen likewise doesn't even have a "Eureka!" Moment on stopping the ritual until a few seconds before she does.
  • Cats Are Magic: Granny Rigg owns a cat that seems to be able to understand her commands. It's implied the cat is watching Ms Mayfield at her instruction.
  • Chekhov's Gun: "Not a single drop of blood be spilled." Ms Mayfield cuts her own arm and wipes the blood on Stephanie's robe, rendering the ritual useless.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ms Mayfield's knowledge of Latin helps her understand how to stop the ritual.
  • Child Prodigy: Ronnie Dowsett who gets high grades and is encouraged by Ms Mayfield.
  • City Mouse: Ms Mayfield acts as such. Another teacher says that her boyfriend lives in the city, but can't stand the countryside.
  • Cold Ham: After The Reveal, Stephanie rarely raises her voice but still brings the gravitas.
  • Cool Teacher: When we see her in the class, Ms Mayfield is indeed a teacher that everyone loves.
  • Costume Porn: Ms Mayfield is dressed in the high fashion of the 60s in nearly every scene. The DVD even has a feature dedicated to her wardrobe, titled 'Hammer Glamour'.
  • Damsel in Distress: Linda spends the third act of the film in a trance, about to be sacrificed. It's up to Ms Mayfield to save her.
  • Darkest Africa: Implied, with the witch doctors' treatment of Ms Mayfield.
  • Denser and Wackier: The film goes there in is third act with a truly bizarre black magic ritual. The film itself was actually an inverse going from script to screen - where the first draft was a dark satire and the finished piece is a straight horror film.
  • Dissonant Serenity: The locals' attitudes to Mr Dowsett being drowned, which is what tips Ms Mayfield off to their behaviour.
  • Easy Amnesia: Ms Mayfield having spent a year in the nursing home. Could be justified due to a witch's spell.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones:
    • Stephanie is willing to sacrifice an innocent girl but she seems to have some affection for her brother, and her friendship towards Ms Mayfield is sincere.
    • Granny Rigg has used her magic to torture members of the Dowsett family, but she cares deeply for Linda.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Granny Rigg has no problem murdering Mr Dowsett but she stops just short of allowing her granddaughter to be sacrificed.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Stephanie never considered Gwen sabotaging the ritual purely to save Linda.
  • Evil Matriarch:
    • Granny Rigg. The final scene subverts it, as she cares deeply for her granddaughter.
    • Stephanie would count, if she were actually a matriarch.
  • First-Name Basis: Stephanie insists on this in her first scene. In the film she's the only one to call Ms Mayfield by her first name Gwen.
  • Foreshadowing
    • Alan offers to pay for Ronnie to go to a boarding school to catch up with his coursework. He seems very keen to get Ronnie out of town without any trouble...
    • When Gwen and Stephanie first meet and talk about the latter's articles, Stephanie is pleased when Gwen says she sometimes disagrees "violently" with her opinions. Gwen later violently disagrees with Stephanie's plan to sacrifice Linda.
    • Linda's first scene has Gwen joking that she's "a bit big" to be playing with dolls. It turns out Linda is just the right age to be a sacrifice.
  • Gilligan Cut: Ms Mayfield talks about a town full of "nice, simple people". Cut to the butcher skinning a rabbit in front of her.
  • Good Shepherd: Alan wants to be seen as this, and wears the clothing of a minister to put people at ease.
  • Gossipy Hens: They're the antagonists of the film.
  • Grand Theft Me: Stephanie's plan is to kill Linda and take control of her body.
  • The Hecate Sisters: In the third act it's revealed that three female characters fill these roles. Linda is obviously the Maiden, Gwen is the Matron and Stephanie is the Crone. However if one wants to consider Stephanie separate from this trio as the coven head, then the Crone role could be filled by Granny Rigg.
  • Hysterical Woman: The film actually deconstructs this, with Ms Mayfield being looked down on by several characters due to her nervous breakdown in Africa. The witches' plans seem to be to get her to think she's going mad so no one will believe her.
  • Implied Love Interest: Both of the Bax siblings share this with Gwen, even though there is no actual romantic attraction between them.
    • Alan has several intimate scenes with Gwen, and she appeals to him in ways that a lover would. In some scenes it almost comes across as a Love Triangle with Stephanie as the third person.
    • Stephanie is Gwen's confidant, and helps her whenever she has fears or worries about the happenings in town.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Bax family were once much wealthier but still live in a Big Fancy House. It's implied Stephanie's articles keep some money coming in.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Ronnie is made ill with magic but the witches stop at killing him, which they have no problem doing to his father. Likewise Stephanie's plan is to change bodies with Linda, which would kill her. It doesn't come to pass but she intends to. Linda however has to be fifteen for the ritual to work, putting her above the usual age limit of this trope.
  • Indy Ploy: Ms Mayfield escapes the mental hospital by hitching a lift with a delivery man, pretending to be trying to get a piece of equipment repaired.
  • Karma Houdini: It's unknown what happened to the rest of the witches who made Ronnie ill and killed Mr Dowsett. But since they were acting under Stephanie's orders, it's possible Ms Mayfield gives them the benefit of the doubt. Likewise Granny Rigg is never punished for having made Mrs Dowsett ill the previous year. There is a line alluding to several people leaving Heddaby between school terms, suggesting all the witches in the coven moved.
  • Living MacGuffin: Linda exists for the witches to perform some nefarious purpose, and it's important that she be kept a virgin. Stephanie wants to sacrifice her so she can live longer.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Alan, who just goes along because he knows he can't stop his sister.
  • Missing Mom: Dialogue from Granny Rigg implies that Linda's mother had her illegitimately and that's why she isn't around.
  • No Ontological Inertia: After Ms Mayfield ruins the ritual, Stephanie just dies.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Martin Stephens plays Heddaby local Ronnie Dowsett but inexplicably has a well-spoken RP dialect. This is in heavy contrast to his parents, who have regional accents.
  • Old Maid: Stephanie Bax, though this is more due to her being a research woman that likely has no time for anything but work.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Part of the ritual includes Stephanie chanting in Latin.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: A large portion of the cast are attempting West Country accents but their RP voices slip through on occasions.
  • Oop North: Rather rare for a horror film to be set there.
  • Power Hair: Stephanie as a powerful career woman has her hair like this.
  • Red Herring:
    • Double subverted. Granny Rigg is a witch and responsible for making Ronnie ill. However it is Stephanie that is the head witch.
    • Dr Wallis seems as if he could be part of the conspiracy too. However he apparently is innocent.
    • The various African totems that the witch doctors used to scare Ms Mayfield away keep popping up, raising the possibility that they could also be involved. It turns out it's just Stephanie screwing with her.
  • Rewatch Bonus:
    • Astute viewers will notice that Gwen doesn't start having her hallucinations until after she has talked with Stephanie about witches.
    • They'll also notice that when Ms Mayfield first starts talking about witchcraft Stephanie says she's studied it and then insists the psychology behind it, which sounds a bit like Insistent Terminology or a Suspiciously Specific Denial. She also advises against removing the pins from the doll "because that would be admitting belief" and also insists on keeping the doll obviously to preserve the spell that's keeping Ronnie ill.
    • When Gwen is attacked by the flock of sheep that clear away the footprints, Stephanie's dogs is right there to chase them away and thus allow Stephanie to look like she's coming to the rescue. Stephanie also quickly makes up an excuse that the dogs inexplicably went out of control, further deflecting suspicion off herself.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Gwen suspects that everyone wants to keep Ronnie and Linda apart to prevent them from sleeping together and Linda being Defiled Forever. They do want to keep Linda a virgin...because Stephanie needs a sacrifice.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Mrs Dowsett and Ronnie early on. Ms Mayfield however suspects there is more to it - that Granny Rigg made Ronnie seriously ill and agreed to lift it if they moved from town.
  • Sinister Minister: Alan, even though he's not actually ordained. He's ultimately proved to be a somewhat heroic character.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Stephanie is fluent in it. Gwen reads it a little.
  • Stepford Smiler: Valerie would be the most notable example. She would be a Type C. Eternally smiley and cheery, but the effect is unsettling to Ms Mayfield.
  • Time Skip: After Ms Mayfield has a fit in the Bax's house, she wakes up having spent over a year in a nursing home.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Heddaby. The rectory being occupied by a man only dressing as a minister is the tip of the iceberg.
  • Two-Teacher School: The Heddaby school appears to just have two teachers - one for the junior classes and one for the senior classes.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Ronnie Dowsett is simply going around with a girl he has a crush on. The locals' suspicious attitudes are what lead to Ms Mayfield uncovering the plot.
  • Vain Sorceress: Subverted. Stephanie wishes to become young again only to learn even more about the world.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Inspired by the Charles Walton murder of 1945 - where a man in a countryside hamlet was found murdered in what looked like a ritual sacrifice. The un-cooporative locals lead to rumors that he had run afoul of a coven of witches (conflicting rumors said he himself was a witch).
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Played with. Linda must be kept a virgin for Stephanie's spell to work.
  • Voodoo Doll: A doll Ronnie gives Linda is used as one to make him dreadfully ill.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: By the end of the film Ronnie Dowsett and his mother have moved out of town, with no mention of them hearing about Mr Dowsett's death.
  • White Shirt of Death: Linda is to be sacrificed wearing a white gown. Gwen also wears a white robe for the ritual too.
  • Wicked Witch: Granny Rigg fills many of the requirements - keeps a cat, elderly woman, no husband or children in sight, has plenty of herbal remedies and potions and curses children. However Stephanie is the coven head - and Granny Rigg draws the line at sacrificing her own granddaughter.