If you wanted to make a movie about a meek, pleasant woman with anxiety and growing concern about hints that something secret and sinister is going on, you couldn't do better than Joan Fontaine. She played that kind of role throughout her career, from her first leading film roles to her last, 1966's The Witches
, a decent, somewhat unusual Hammer horror film that falls short of its potential.
Gwen (Fontaine) is a schoolteacher whom we meet teaching English in an unspecified West African country. Her last two terrified students flee the school when the place is besieged by not very authentic looking witch doctors.
We don't see and we're not told what happens next because there's a cut then to Gwen back in England recovering from a nervous breakdown she'd suffered from the incident. She applies for a teaching position in an idyllic little village and is surprised when she's accepted despite her lack of references.
As she settles in, clues are dropped for her and us with nice subtlety. Is there something odd about how gleefully the butcher talks about meat? What about the dolls little Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting) encourages a boy in her class to play with? Did Linda really break her arm in an accident or was it her grandmother, as one of the students whispers to Gwen?
The movie relies on a lot of nice location shots in a real village, not unlike other Hammer films of the time. It's primarily the presence of Fontaine that makes this film so different. Instead of Peter Cushing rooting out evil, Fontaine presents us with a much more passive protagonist than Hammer movies of the 60s typically had. As such, there's a sense of the writers not quite knowing how to move things forward at times, the ending of the film in particular not feeling quite right for her character. I was hoping that we'd learn her experiences in Africa had conferred on Gwen some knowledge of magic unknown and dangerous to the witches of England but it ends up just being two unrelated horrible encounters with witches in Gwen's peculiarly unlucky life.