The FilmThere's something about the quiet villages of Blighty that puts me on edge. I once lived in one in Oxfordshire which was all history and doilies, and strangely absent of real lives or real people. Whenever I went to the local post office, the queue chatted merrily and the postmistress smiled politely - nothing was amiss and everything was in its place, everything apart from a sense of soul. From my cottage window, I watched the villagers walking their terriers in their Barbour jackets and their green wellies, convinced that we were from different worlds.
In The Witches, the much more amiable and proper Joan Fontaine comes to suspect a horrible secret is at the heart of her village. Unlike me, she welcomes the routine and the customs and sees her place in the established order, which makes her dawning realisation all the more horrific for her.Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a teacher who has returned to the profession after a breakdown brought on by a bad experience with African witchcraft on her last posting. Encouraged by the Baxes, a likeable local couple, she takes on the role of educator in their village, only to learn of suspicious illness and mysterious deaths. A second breakdown sees her admitted to a nursing home with her memory gone - once it returns, Gwen has to find out the truth behind the picturesque community.
Written by Nigel Kneale, The Witches does very well in re-creating the peculiar insularity of village life and the semi-feudal relationships around it. The tone of things being too perfect and of total complicity in the idyllic fabrication is wonderfully done, and Fontaine is rather good as a somewhat fallible heroine who learns of her role as a bit of a stooge. Sadly, though, the final act is badly prepared for as well as weakly mounted and comes off a little hysterical as a result. The slow burn of the first two acts is succeeded by a breakneck race to the more fantastic elements of the tale and the production of this final sequence comes over as undercooked. This is a great shame as the cast are all good and the setting is perfect. Later films like Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man would pull this trick off much more effectively, and the Witches squanders some of the good will it creates in a dodgy ending.