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.
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.
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.
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.