This Summer, Remember The Witches

Here's a fun one that tends to get overlooked.  Apparently Joan Fontaine - who reigned in the 40's with Oscar noms for Rebecca and The Constant Nymph, and a win with Suspicion - bought Norah Lofts' novel for Hammer to film as comeback vehicle for her.  And Nigel Kneale took it on as a quick work for hire, which adds up, since you don't feel a lot usual themes in this piece, though there are still a few moments of his trademark wit and cleverly explained supernatural plot elements.  The result is a smart bit of folk horror that surprisingly opens in witchcraft-plagued Africa where an innocent school teacher escapes the frying pan into the fire of England, where the witches are a little more subtle, but just as diabolical.
Not that things ever get too crazy.  If you're looking for special effects, lots of kills and wild set pieces, this isn't the movie for you.  Well, except for the stampede sheep attack; we do get one of those.  And a the world's most PG orgy.  So okay, I can see why this isn't on the top of many cult fans' lists.  But what you will get is a steady, thoughtful story that will keep you reassessing your assumptions.  It plays more like something that would've aired on the BBC than a theatrical exhibition, but I love those British television horrors, so that's a compliment in my book.  And Fontaine is good, though many in the supporting cast are better, especially Kay Walsh and the child actors, who maintain an impressive degree of credibility.
The Witches' story on home video here in the states is pretty simple.  Anchor Bay put it out on DVD back in 2000 as part of their Hammer Collection line.  And they reissued it on 2004 with Prehistoric Women, a film it had theatrically billed with back in the 60s, as a Double Feature 2-disc set.  The film started getting upgraded to blu overseas around 2013 (by Studio Canal in the UK, Umbrella in Australia); and eventually, in 2019, Scream Factory released it here on BD.
2000 Anchor Bay DVD top; 2019 Scream Factory BD bottom.
Oh, it looks so much better!  Look how faded and red those DVDs colors are compared to the blu.  It turns out the witch isn't even wearing an orange cloak in the big ceremony, but a yellow one.  And the leaves on the trees aren't orange either.  Both pillar-boxed discs are also in roughly the same aspect ratio (1.66 v 1.67), but Scream pulls back and corrects a slight horizontal stretching to reveal more picture.  Grain is a little inconsistent, but largely natural and strong, certainly a very different experience than the smudgy hints floating around the DVD.  The old disc was alright for its time: anamorphic and properly progressive; but this is a full leap forward into the HD age with no compromise.

Both discs give us the original mono track in 2.0, but Scream bumps it up to DTS-HD and includes optional, English subtitles.
And then there's the extras.  I've got a lot to talk about here.  First up is a new audio commentary by Ted Newsom.  The back of the case says it's by Newsom and Constantine Nasr, but I've listened to the whole thing, and Newsom is definitely alone.  Anyway, this solo commentary is overall rather good and informative, especially about Fontaine, the original author and the book this is based on.  But it's also quite rambling, unfocused, and frustratingly critical of the script.  "Frustrating" not because he knocks the film (I quite like it, but I will acknowledge its finale falls somewhat short), but because he keeps going on and on about what's wrong with a certain part and how he'd rewrite the script without... well, I don't want to get into spoilers, because it's late in the picture and tied into major plot twists.  But he keeps talking about how this certain development is unexplained and doesn't make logical sense, but it quite clearly is explained in the film.  And it's not such a crime for a commentator to miss a little detail in the story he's commenting on, but he keeps repeating himself.  It would be annoying even if he was right; the fact that he's objectively wrong just makes it stick out a little further.

...But, if you can let these things go, there is a lot to take away from the commentary and it is very much worth the listen.
Wicked Women
Besides that, well, Anchor Bay had another episode of in their World of Hammer series, this one entitled Wicked Women, where Oliver Reed narrates clips from a series of Hammer films.  Naturally, this one features on prominent female characters and includes a lengthy clip from the finale of The Witches.  But this series doesn't offer much of anything outside of film clips, no behind-the-scenes insight, no critical analysis... it's just clips from some of the films.  At least it gives us a look at the fullscreen version of the film.  So it's entertaining, I guess, but pointless in a world where all these films are readily available in full.
Hammer Glamour
And I thought that was the featurette carried over to the Scream disc.  But no, actually theirs is a different one called Hammer Glamour (in addition to, not instead of, Wicked Women).  It's also about prominent female characters from Hammer films, but this one interviews a whole collection of their biggest stars and has heaps to offer.  It's a great, highly rewarding watch.  But disappointingly, there's nothing about Fontaine or any of the female cast members from The Witches.  Both discs also include the trailer and a second one for a double-feature with Prehistoric Women.  Scream also adds a new stills gallery and reversible artwork.
The Witches might seem like one of those titles where there's no rush replace your DVDs, but you absolutely should.  It's an improvement in every way: picture, audio, subtitles, special features... heck, even the packaging.  The difference in image quality is dramatic and obvious, and the extras are better than the specs suggest.  And it's a good movie, even if its low on spectacle.

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