Devil’s Own, The (aka The Witches): Routine Hammer Horror Film, Starring Joan Fontaine in Final Performance

The Witches (released in the US as The Devil’s Own), directed by Cyril Frankel, is a routine and quite disappointing horror flick by standards of other and better Hammer Films.

It was adapted by Nigel Kneale from Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own, published under the pseudonym Peter Curtis.

It is mostly known for featuring Oscar winner Joan (Suspicion) Fontaine in her final big-screen performance.

Teacher Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) is packing up at a mission school in colonial Africa, where local witch doctors have led a rebellion.  Reaching the school before she is able to escape, Gwen delivers the obligatory scream in such tales, after which the scene dissolves to the opening credits.

Back home in England, Gwen meets Reverend Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job interview, after sufferingd nervous breakdown from her experience. Alan hires her as the new head teacher at the small private school he and  sister-journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh) run for the local children in the village of Heddaby.

Gwen asks her maid, Valerie Creek, where she might find the rectory, but the latter says there is no rectory. However, Alan shows Gwen the old church, now a ruin, confessing that he is not really a priest. He does not try to persuade anyone or officiate, wearing the priestly collar “for security.”

School begins, but the other teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), fails to arrive; on holiday in France, her boat was held up.  Two of Gwen’s students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) (son of Gwen’s gardener) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), are dating, but the town disapproves of their friendship, especially Linda’s grandmother, Granny Rigg.

Gwen goes to visit Linda, who claims to have hurt her hand by washing doll clothes. Linda’s grandmother seems to be a cheerful woman, and is well-versed in the making of home remedies from herbs. But soon Gwen realizes that things are not what they seem on the surface.

Alan suggests sending Ronnie to a cramming school to follow a university preparation course of study in high school, but Gwen offers to give him the extra tutoring.

While conducting lessons outside, Gwen finds Linda’s missing male doll in a tree, full of pins and with its head missing. She shows it to Stephanie who suggests it might be someone in Heddaby dabbling in witchcraft. Gwen wants to remove the pins but Stephanie disagrees.  The women then write an article on witchcraft in contemporary England, based on Gwen’s prior experience in Africa.

Stephanie takes Gwen to recuperate at her house, where Dr. Wallis (Leonard Rossiter) gives her a tetanus injection. She wakes several weeks later in a nursing home, but has no memory of her life after returning to England.  She thinks she is still in Africa, but Dr. Wallis explains that her generous friends pay for her care, and that her memory will come back.

Uon recovery of her memory, Gwen realizes that Linda is in danger in a ritual sacrifice. She sneaks out of the nursing home and hitchhikes her way back to Heddaby. She is picked up by Mr. Curd, the local butcher, who takes Gwen her to the Baxes, where she is warmly received by Alan, Stephanie and Dr Wallis.

From her room Gwen sees people scurrying along a path through the cemetery. She follows them and ends up in the ruins of the old church, where she finds a sack doll with a picture of Linda. The doll is dancing about a witches’ circle. Gwen grabs the doll, unzips it and discovers that Mrs. Rigg’s cat, Vesper, is inside.

It turns out that Stephanie is the leader of the coven, and her interest in Gwen was to make her an acolyte.  Ohers emerge from the shadows, and Gwen is formally initiated.

Stephanie and Gwen return to the house, where Stephanie explains that she has studied witchcraft as a science and uses it powerfully. She also has the only surviving copy of a book of Brother Johann Woodswurch, in which he detailed the process for extending one’s own life through the ritual sacrifice of a pure maiden.

Stephanie and Gwen review the essential material in the book. The seeker-after-life is warned that everything at the place of sacrifice must be kept pure–no blood or animal defilement, etc. The next evening, Stephanie takes Gwen to the old church, where Linda has been hidden. The ritual begins, but just as Stephanie raises her hand, Gwen sees and grabs another knife, cuts her own arm, and wipes the blood on Stephanie’s robe. Stephanie dies, but Linda revives.

Weeks later, at the start of a new school term, Sally Benson arrives and is surprised by the changes. Alan, who has installed loudspeakers in the classroom, then says, “The one who matters didn’t!” and Gwen smiles.

 

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