Monday, October 28, 2013



Joan Fontaine is a teacher at a mission school in Africa who is driven to a mental breakdown when a voodoo cult, led by a man in a grotesque mask, breaks into her schoolroom. A year later, she is hired to teach school in a small traditional-seeming English village—a pleasant priest (Alec McCowen) who lives with his sister (Kay Walsh) in a lovely old house hires her—but soon eccentricities begin popping up: McCowen isn't really a priest, but he dresses like one; the village church has been abandoned for years; and Fontaine's prettiest student (Ingrid Boulting) has a grandmother who uses "the old ways" in place of modern medicine and whispers mysteriously to her gray cat. Soon Boulting's boyfriend (Martin Stephens), whom Fontaine is mentoring, falls into a coma and a headless voodoo doll is found in a tree. Stephens is whisked away from the village and his father is found drowned in the river. As Fontaine begins suspecting something's not right, she has a vision of the African voodoo man which sends her into a second breakdown. She starts to recover only to find out that there is indeed a Satanic witch cult in the village, Walsh is the leader, and Boulting is about to be sacrificed to be the "new skin" in which Walsh will regain youth and power.

This movie plays out like a mild forerunner to THE WICKER MAN—a placid village hiding pagan secrets—though the outcome here is very different, with a somewhat artificial happy ending in which the witches are defeated. The screenplay, based on a novel by Norah Lofts (written under the pen name Peter Curtis), is a bit muddled here and there. The opening sequence in Africa is rushed through, as is the middle section before Fontaine's second breakdown. Martin Stephens' character seems like he should be important (and the actor—who was the most memorable alien child in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED—is good), but when he vanishes, he's gone for good. Fontaine bought the rights to the novel and got the film made but she seems uncomfortable doing horror. McCowen is wasted, but Walsh (LAST HOLIDAY) tries her best as the head witch—I had stifle a chuckle when she appeared decked out in her pagan regalia (pictured above), though she didn't look quite as silly as the voodoo man at the beginning. The whole thing could have used a darker look and feel; prancing witches in the daylight don't look very threatening. The climactic witches' Sabbath/would-be orgy looks like it was choreographed by someone who admired WEST SIDE STORY. [DVD]

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