The world has lost some amazing people this year, and three of them over the last few days. Of those three deaths, it goes without saying that the greatest loss to modern history is unquestionably the passing of Nelson Mandela. But, over the previous twenty four hours, the world of motion pictures has suffered two very sad losses as well: the legendary Peter O’Toole and, just as importantly (at least for me) a mesmerising and almost forgotten actress called Joan Fontaine.

Of course, to people who love movies Joan Fontaine needs no introduction. As the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, she beat her sibling rival to a 1942 Academy award after sharing the screen with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’ and she was the only performer ever to win an Oscar for starring in one of Hitch’s films. Not even James Stewart who, let’s face it, gave starring in Hitchcock movies a pretty good shot, could manage that. And it hadn’t been Fontaine and Hitchcock’s first ride on the Oscar merry-go-round either. She had been nominated two years earlier, after co-starring with Laurence Olivier in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’.

Joan Fontaine undoubtedly had a remarkable career. Among her many other highlights was the movie ‘Gunga Din’ with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, ‘Jane Eyre’ alongside Orson Welles, and 1962’s ‘Tender is the Night’. She even got controversially interracial with Harry Belafonte in 1957’s ‘Island in the Sun’ although – despite the furore – it was left to Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin (the other interracial couple in that movie) to do the actual kissing.

But it was Joan Fontaine’s last feature film, Hammer’s ‘The Witches’, that will remain my favourite.

‘The Witches’ was released in 1966 and, although one of the lesser known entries in the Hammer canon, it’s truly a movie that’s ahead of its time.

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It tells the story of Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) a conscientious teacher who has a terrifying run-in with tribal witchcraft while looking after a school in some unnamed part of Africa. Her experience results in a nervous breakdown, and when she returns to England she accepts the role of headmistress at a school in the very rural village of Heddaby (actually Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, which – a couple of years later – would feature prominently in the  film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’).

All seems to be well until Miss Mayfield hears rumours about one of her female pupils being abused by her grandmother, and finds out that the vicar who interviewed her for her job isn’t actually a priest. And then there are the fetish dolls she discovers, another student who has a nasty accident, a distraught father who dies after visiting her, and the slow-burning  realisation she is on a collision course with some form of horrific black magic. The cheerful, welcoming little village of Heddaby is definitely not all it seems.

Fontaine is wonderful as Gwen Mayfield and, by all accounts, was the only American ‘film star’ Hammer ever worked with who didn’t give them a tremendous headache. Hammer wouldn’t be so lucky with Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead or (most especially) Richard Widmark.

It was also Fontaine’s idea to make ‘The Witches’. She had bought the rights to Norah Loft’s book ‘The Devil’s Own’ (1960: Lofts’ published it under the pseudonym Peter Curtis) and was instrumental in pitching the project to Hammer. It was an astute piece of business, not just to approach Hammer with the property but to have snapped it up in the first place: although the novel is such an understated piece of writing that it barely even registers as a satanic thriller, the film is arguably British movie making’s first excursion into the genre of folk horror as well as being the first time that Hammer would openly deal with the controversial subject of devil worship to the extent of depicting the climactic ceremony on-screen (don’t get excited if you haven’t yet seen the movie, though: the sequence is so tame it’s almost ridiculous, and only narrowly avoids undoing all the interesting psychological tension the story has patiently spent its first hour accumulating).

Still, Hammer wouldn’t return to satan worshipping territory until 1968s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and, for my money, Nigel Kneale’s screenplay for ‘The Witches’ is more effective than Richard Matheson’s (admittedly still very fine) Dennis Wheatley adaptation because, although it thankfully isn’t the almost-black comedy Kneale apparently set out to write, it still has a sense of humour, and a fine eye for character quirk, which beautifully anticipates the Summerisle eccentricities of ‘The Wicker Man’, who wouldn’t set cinemas on fire for another seven years.

And, let’s face it, didn’t exactly burn the house down even then.

‘The Witches’ also isn’t a million miles away in tone from a similiarly-themed film that Deborah Kerr would make the following year called ‘Eye of the Devil’, delivering a very restrained-but-unravelling-like-Joan Fontaine’s-character performance (also notable as Sharon Tate’s first film, and very worth tracking down).

But, unlike ‘Eye of the Devil’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, the sacrifice at the climax of ‘The Witches’ isn’t being conducted to save the vineyard or refresh the crops. Still, it’s interesting to note that Norah Lofts was inspired to write her original novel after reading about the Lower Quinton ‘witchcraft murder’ on Valentines Day 1945 when an elderly farm labourer was murdered on Warwickshire’s Meon Hill for reasons, many people still believe, that have a lot to do with witchcraft, that the man was probably killed to enrich the soil with his blood and ensure next years better harvest or (another suspicion, because the murderer was never caught) that the victim was killed in retaliation for that years bad harvest and because he had been suspected of using witchcraft to cause it.

So, even though ‘The Witches’ took a different detour in its movie incarnation, its source material was definitely ahead of the curve. I’m tempted to credit Joan Fontaine for the foresight of predicting that one, even though she always considered the original story to be a mystery rather than a horror.

‘The Witches’ has recently been released on blu-ray and DVD and absolutely deserves reconsideration and re-evaluation. It’s a flawed film and in some ways a missed opportunity, particularly in that final act when I suspect the film makers lost the courage of their convictions and reduced the witches Sabbat down to aawkwardly choreographed piece of experimental theatre-by way of-‘Animal Farm’,  but it’s also an engrossing, intriguing and hugely innovative example of folk horror movie-making, and it unquestionably sets the bar for the more famous films that came shortly afterwards.

If nothing else, watch it for Joan Fontaine’s fantastic central performance and as an opportunity to watch a true movie star retire from the big screen at the top of her game.

Joan Fontaine died peacefully in her sleep on Sunday 15 December 2013.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white