The Devil's Own (1966)

It is hard to think of someone purposely choosing Hammer, the famous British movie studio that is largely known for breathing new life into Universal's carousel of monsters, as the place to produce their pet project.  That is exactly what Joan Fontaine, who plays the protagonist in this story did.  She bought the rights to the novel (called The Witches, which was also the original British title of this film) and suggested that Hammer make their version of it. 

Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) is working a school teacher in Africa when the country she is in erupts into revolution and the school is attacked by the local witch doctor.  This lands Mayfield in a mental institution for a time.  Afterward, she seems to have been able to overcome her problems and to have been given a second chance at a rural school run by Stephanie (Kay Walsh) and Alan Bax (Alec McCowen). 

The problem is that things are not as they seem.  Townspeople, especially Granny Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies), are especially concerned with ending a budding adolescent relationship between Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting) and another boy at her school.  She begins to hear rumors that Linda is being saved for some sort of Satanic sacrifice.  Meanwhile, the boy's family leaves town after his father dies.  Gwen tries to further investigate, but her fragile mental state is pushed even further when she seems to see the same witch doctor from the beginning attack.

Once again institutionalized, but without a memory of the events, Gwen tries to figure out exactly what happened.  After seeing Alan when he visits to see how she is doing the memories start to return.  Going back to the town she finds out that Stephanie is really the leader of a cult that involves most of the town, and that Linda is the vessel she has chosen to transport her soul and achieve immortality.  Gwen, of course, ultimately has to stop her.

I believe I have mentioned before that Hammer films are more about a slow burn than outright, slap-in-the-face horror.  Much of the reason has been budgets, but in this case there is really no need for expensive rubber-suited monsters.  Still, another reason a number of Hammer films outside the most well-known trip up is because the denouement often erupts into silliness, as it does here.  Most of the movie is quite good, with the wrongness of the village and the hint that the Baxes are up to no good carrying it.  By the time Stephanie is in her devil suit with a ragged semi-orgy going on around her, we have gone from spooky to hilariously inept. It doesn't help that this seems to be Hammer's default take on witchcraft.

With a less drawn-out ending, which would have led to a nice punch and a satisfying rescue, this movie would be among the classic horror films of the 1960s.  Also, Joan Fontaine may have continued acting.  As it was, this movie was a failure, and she retired.  A shame, since she, as well as the rest of the cast, are rather good in this.  It is just that sometimes what may appear good on paper doesn't really translate to film.

The Devil's Own (1966)
Time: 90 minutes
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen
Director: Cyril Frankel


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