One reason for why this 1966 Hammer movie isn’t that well known could be timing. This tale of a school teacher convalescing from a nervous breakdown, moving to an English country village and gradually realising that there’s something dangerous and wrong in the very fabric of this country idyll, would have perhaps been more successful if it had been released five years later. It could have grouped together with BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW and THE WICKER MAN as another example of great English pastoral horror. (It does actually share some of the same story beats as THE WICKER MAN). Maybe then it would be remembered more fondly (or remembered at all) by horror fans.
But I’m reaching with that theory, as the main reason this isn’t remembered that fondly by horror fans is it really isn’t that scary.
It does do an excellent job early on of creating an unsettling atmosphere, and Joan Fontaine (looking really good, twenty-five years after REBECCA) is superb as a character who maintains a poise even when on-edge. But whatever menace the film manages to create, it squanders.
The biggest problem is that the big satanic orgy/sacrifice that culminates the film is absolutely ludicrous. Rather than terrifying, our Satanists prance around in unison as if they’ve been choreographed by some black magic, Jerome Robbins. It’s not so much a summoning of all that’s evil as a discordant aerobics class.
In my TWINS OF EVIL review, I suggested that there was a different and better movie hidden away within it. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case with THE WITCHES. The fundamentals – the story and what it’s trying to achieve – ain’t bad. It’s just not done very well. So really, the better, scarier film hidden away in THE WITCHES is actually THE WITCHES, just made more competently.