Cat’s in the Bag

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THE WITCHES (1966) predates ROSEMARY’S BABY but isn’t as good — but it really does play many of the same tricks, with the audience meant to be unsure if Joan Fontaine is crazy or if the charming English village really is swarming with diabolists. THE WICKER MAN is also strongly recalled by the rural terror angle.

Of course, we were watching because the movie is scripted by Nigel Kneale. I don’t suppose many people watch for director Cy Frankel. Poor Cy. Fontaine’s casting suggests all those Hollywood horrors in which former leading ladies are cruelly reshaped as monsters, from BABY JANE on, but in fact she’s playing a fairly resourceful heroine, and the movie is more inclined to ignore her age rather than exploit it for queasy chills.

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Fontaine could have used a stronger director, though — she overacts horribly in places. Shown round her new cottage home, she pulls hyperactive cutesy faces at everything, like a neurotic schoolmarm. Admittedly, she’s playing the character of a neurotic schoolmarm, But you don’t want to play a neurotic schoolmarm LIKE a neurotic schoolmarm. It makes for an appalling display. But she reins it in later.

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How to seduce Joan Fontaine #3,412: Cod Psychology.

Lots of other pleasures in the cast — Kay Walsh, Duncan Lamont (the jumping leaping man from QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) and Leonard Rossiter in the Charles Grodin part, as a doctor we can’t quite be sure about. Plus Michelle Dotrice, who gets all horny at the black mass, just as she would in BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, still playing a teenager five years later. Between these two films lies Robert Fuest’s tense AND SOON THE DARKNESS, so there’s a trilogy of terror alright, but the world is still waiting for La Dotrice to get overexcited at her third sabbat.

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The erotic power of the bowl.

It’s a shame the film leaves the sleepy/creepy village for a stretch in the middle, breaking off some nicely building suspense, and one could have wished the final plot revelations had been fed in more gradually. But the idea of an aging person planning to insert their consciousness into a younger donor body is very interesting — the same idea is used in NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, but with a mad science angle rather than sorcery. And we get another great Kneale rhyme —

Grow me a gown with golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in.

Maybe it comes from the book, I don’t know, but it sounds like him.

The one truly alarming bit is this —

The cat in the bag — a cloth doll twitching on the floor, repulsive and uncanny and incomprehensible until we realize what it is we’re looking at.

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Poor kitty!

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16 Responses to “Cat’s in the Bag”

  1. “Cat’s in the bag — bag’s in the river.”

  2. One of Hammer’s worst, I’d say.

  3. It doesn’t quite work, but you see glimpses of what it’s trying to be — Rosemary’s Baby meets The Wicker Man, basically, before either of those films had happened — and you wish the execution were stronger. Black and white would have suited it better, but the bright, flat cinematography could certainly have been improved.

  4. Jonathan Rigby Says:

    Cyril absolutely idolised Joan, by all accounts – hence the unchecked and, as you say, embarrassing performance. As for the film ignoring her age, well, she was only 48 (the same age Nicole Kidman is now). Anyway, Kay Walsh (55) walks off with the film with no trouble at all. If Joan had been more astute (and less wedded to her winsome image), she’d have realised which was the better role.

  5. Jonathan Rigby Says:

    Actually, Kay was 54 – much the same age Bette Davis was in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? So clearly she’d entered the hag zone as far as 60s fimmakers were concerned.

  6. Interestingly, the film is much more ABOUT being an ageing woman than most of the Hollywood cycle of BABY JANE type films, but this doesn’t really reflect on Fontaine’s character — perhaps because she brought the project to Hammer.

  7. I first caught this in black and white on the telly (in a caravan site just outside Whitley Bay) and it managed to scare the crap out of me. Doesn’t it end with everyone smeared in shit?

    I recommend the book by Peter Curtis (Norah Lofts) – a queasy mash of cult horror and portrait of a woman viewed as obsolete and ludicrous because of her age (quite a bit deeper than the film). Reminded me of Le Carre’s lonely shelved men.

  8. The book sounds great — I had a feeling it was probably interesting, to have attracted Kneale as adaptor. And allowing forwith more internality, I imagine it could explore the interesting aspects of the story more deeply.

  9. Fiona here, ‘dancing in the skin’ of David Cairns. Colin, can you remember if the uncanny rhyme is in the book? It just feels so totally Kneale I’m convinced he originated it.

  10. A quick flick says it’s a Kneale original, Fiona. Definite huffity puffity chime there.

  11. Thanks!

    And everybody does NOT end up covered in shit, but there is a certain amount of rolling about in dirt, rending of garments, etc. I found it all ridiculous on first viewing but didn’t mind it so much this time. It’s quite well choreographed, but a bit TOO choreographed for something performed by amateur villagers.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    I wonder if Joan asked her sister Olivia to play the Grand High Witch?

  13. The supposedly orgiastic witches’ revel towards the end of the film has all the eerie eroticism of a smooch moment between Ian and Adam in The Archers. Which is to say, not much.

    I understood that it was Fontaine who “discovered” the book, and took it to Hammer, having decided she wanted to get in on the Grand Dame / Grand Guignol sub-genre. Without much success. I think it’s pretty dreadful, with only a few flourishes which offer a glimpse of what it could have been, if only there had been some attempt at atmosphere or a sense of encroaching dread. And once again, the sexuality is strictly of the boy-girl variety.

    btw – what exactly *is* “a neurotic schoolmarm”? In all my 65 years, a fair number of them being taught by ladies with names like Miss Fletcher and Miss Webster, I never encountered a single one who was particularly “neurotic”. I think “schoolmarm” is code for spinster.
    I’m trying politely to say that even before I had a word for it, a descriptive like “schoolmarm” seemed to me somewhat, well, sexist.

  14. My female schoolteachers were all smart, formidable and interesting women. I used the word partly because it seems to conjure up a fake stereotype not met in life, and bits of Fontaine’s perf (the bad bits) evoke just that.

    Apart from the cat, there’s one eerie image, the villagers creeping towards their midnight rendezvous, and it’s ruined because Hammer were too cheap to light a night scene or to wait until dusk to get a decent day-for-night effect.

  15. Ah, I’ve lived in California for too long; your ironic use of ‘schoolmarm’ whizzed right over my noggin.

    Yes, the coven’s rendezvous exactly demonstrates the rather hasty
    approach to the material. Pity.

  16. I wonder if a generation saw this movie on black-and-white TVs with the brightness tuned too low and thought it was a masterpiece?

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