Sunday, August 8, 2010

THE WITCHES (Cyril Frankel, 1966)

Gwen revives from a spiritual breakdown and is offered a second chance to teach in an idyllic rural village, her wealthy benefactor a man with a collar, not a leash. Director Cyril Frankel teams with the legendary actress Joan Fontaine to produce a suspenseful drama whose titular advertisements reveal the mystic spectacle, but nonetheless remains an enjoyable ballet of black magic.

The story begins with thunderous rhythms as Gwen prepare to depart her school in Africa, when suddenly she is assaulted by a Witch Doctor armed with a fetishistic mask, sacrificial blade and some Lovecraftian sorcery. She blacks out and the story jumps forward a few months as she is being interviewed for another teaching job, questions of her mental breakdown a contentious moment of brevity. Gwen soon finds herself in an ideal setting, with friendly folk who readily accept her into the fold.

The plot quickly jettisons exposition and allows the story to build slowly towards its expected resolution. A nice visual flares involve the local Butcher skinning a rabbit while holding a genial conversation with Gwen, but his wife’s look seems to hold back some dark foreboding knowledge: not only is this scene bloody and raw, it serves as a metaphor for Gwen’s status in the community and also foreshadows the wife’s actions.

Two young lovers are scorned and driven from one another, leaving the virginal young lady as a spell component for the mysterious High Priestess. The climactic ritual juxtaposes Satanism in the Western World with the primitive magic revealed in the opening scenes, and the sight of cavorting and orgiastic cultists eating feces and striking poses is both hilarious and slightly disarming: like a cross between Pasolini’s SALO and Adrian Lyne’s FLASHDANCE.

Immortality is written in Latin but empowered by the goblin of hemoglobin, and Gwen saves two souls with her own blood offering.

Final Grade: (B-)

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