‘The Witches’, released for the first time in 1966, is the story of Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) as she struggles to deal with haunting memories from her past. The film has recently been digitally restored, and the result is a crisp and pleasantly surprising renovation of 1960s footage.
It is always refreshing to escape from one’s everyday contemporary life and to hear such forgotten phrases as “Them two are very thick”, and to come across the sort of vintage Fords and beehive hairdos that most of us have only heard about. However, the aesthetic experience is usually ruined by crackling shots, failed audio recordings, or the standard monochrome visuals. ‘The Witches’, however, presents a much brighter alternative, without impairing the integrity of the content.
The content itself is thought provoking in its ambiguous portrayal of neo-colonialist discourse and parallels between England and Africa. The presiding theme of witchcraft allows for a possible affinity between two seemingly dichotomous nations. This flawless execution of ‘The Witches’ is perhaps unsurprising in view of the director being Cyril Frankel, who also directed ‘Man of Africa’. In terms of the delivery and screenplay, administered by Nigel Kneale, the quality is exceptional, particularly in view of its cinematographic context.
The plot itself unfolds in Haddeby, a seemingly insignificant village amongst the countryside of England. Miss. Mayfield moves to Haddeby to begin work as a schoolteacher, in what she believes to be a quiet and restive environment. Her main purpose in moving is to forget her traumatic experience in Africa, where she worked as a missionary. The reason for her trauma is unveiled in the opening scene, when she comes across a voodoo doll and an attempt is made to oust her from the Africans’ mist by a group of witches.
This colonialist perspective of the African people and witchcraft serves as the main thematic device for the entirety of the film. This is evident through the prevalence of witchcraft in Haddeby, in which Miss. Mayfield unheedingly becomes immersed. At one point, a friend of Miss. Mayfield’s, Stefanie Bax (Kay Walsh), suggests that she write an article comparing African fetishism and the practice of witchcraft in Britain. This qualitative ideology constitutes the main purpose of the film.
Symbolism is rife throughout ‘The Witches’, and it serves to contrast and compare her experience of the fantastical in both continents. Drumming and primitive dancing are the key examples. Interestingly, Barbie-like dolls serve as voodoo dolls and the African voodoo doll becomes transformed in England as the eclectic “feather duster”. Moreover, there is a prevalence of pseudo-religious imagery throughout the film, including references to virginity, the power of blood, and sacrifice.
‘The Witches’ therefore explores the depths of fetishism and witchcraft to blur the boundaries between the West and Africa, diminishing the idea of the ‘Other’.
DVDs will be available for purchase as from October 21st.