Thursday, October 21, 2021

Joan Fontaine: An Elegant Scream Queen


I love when actresses past a certain age are able to transition from leading ladies into character roles—that is truly a test of talent, tenacity and charisma. Some of the films they do may not be classics, but that makes it even more fun. They usually work even harder to entertain us than in their film heydays.

Joan Fontaine’s last big screen role was in a picture that she produced with Hammer Films, and she and the film are eminently watchable, even if it goes totally off the rails near the end. (There are spoilers ahead, because the train wreck of an ending is my favorite part!)

The Witches (1966) marked Fontaine’s descent into the Grand Guignol, that entertaining 1960s phenomenon of mature leading ladies seeking renewed box office appeal in the horror film genre. Pioneered by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, the genre is populated by luminaries and legends including Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling), Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters (What’s The Matter With Helen), Ruth Gordon (Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice) and Elizabeth Taylor (Night Watch). Fontaine’s own sister Olivia deHavilland joined the mature scream queen coven as well with Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Lady in a Cage and later The Swarm.

Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield

(Fontaine’s feud with sister deHavilland is as well known as her iconic performances in films like The Women, Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion, for which Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar five years before her sister finally copped the gold statuette. It’s rumored they didn’t speak for more than 20 years before Fontaine’s death at the age of 96 in 2013. DeHavilland passed away at the age of 104 in 2020.)

Joan with sister and arch rival Olivia in the 60s, when they were still speaking

In The Witches (released in the U.S. at the time as The Devil’s Own), Fontaine plays schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield, who has been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown following a traumatic event overseas, an indigenous uprising against the Christian missionaries, culminating in a terrifying voodoo ritual.  

To her relief and delight, upon her discharge from the sanitarium Miss Mayfield is offered a dream job, as headmistress in a country day school in the picturesque village of Hedaby, where she'll be installed in a cozy little cottage replete with English rose garden and her own young housekeeper. 

Hedaby is populated with uneducated, hardworking, down-to-earth plain country folk, but evil is lurking beneath the town’s bucolic charms, splendidly photographed in Hammer fashion and foreshadowing the company’s masterpiece The Wicker Man seven years later.

The movie offers a great opportunity to showcase the talents of trained British actors developing those quirky characters that make Hammer horror films such a treat. You can see the familiar tropes a mile away—the butcher who practices his knife skills with a little too much relish, for example—but this company of actors is totally committed and believable in their roles.

A standout in the cast is Hammer Film favorite Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (The Devil Rides Out) as the fey and deliciously vague Granny Rigg, who uses her cat as a familiar to stalk Miss Mayfield. Alec McCowen (Never Say Never Again) is just right as Alan Bax, the wealthy landowner who wears a priest’s collar though he’s not in the clergy. Kay Walsh (In Which We Serve) is veddy veddy proper as Alan’s older sister Stephanie Bax, a celebrated writer and intellectual who looks down her nose at the common folk she presides over as a member of the landed gentry.  


The wonderful Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Granny Rigg

Alec McCowen as Alan Bax


Martin Stephens as Ronnie Dowsett and Ingrid Boulton as Linda Rigg

There are new young faces to be found here, too, including Martin Stephens (The Innocents, Village of the Damned) and Ingrid Boulting (The Last Tycoon) as a young teen couple who may be about to lose their virginity, to the town’s great distress. 

Truth be told, the storytelling is quite compelling as the plot unfolds and Miss Mayfield begins to suspect that’s something’s amiss. (You guessed it—they’re all witches.) There is an elegant building of suspense and revelation that culminates in a climax that—well, at least breaks the tension. (And for many viewers, sort of ruins the whole film.) 

And here’s the spoiler section: The producers were obviously flummoxed about how to portray a scene of supreme evil and obscenity—a wild bacchanal followed by a human sacrifice – and get it past the 1966 censors while still receiving a code of approval from the Motion Picture boards and associations in the U.S. and U.K. 

As a result, the climactic “orgy” scene is either an embarrassment or a rollickingly hilarious camp tableau, depending on your point of view, with participants gnashing their teeth, rolling in the mud and literally eating dirt under the hypnotic persuasion of the usually fastidious but now wild-eyed Kay Walsh.


The townspeople get grubbier and stupider as the evil plan is revealed

Outrageously adorned with deer antlers studded with candles (half headdress, half chandelier),  Walsh puts on quite a show and goes straight over the top, gravely intoning some Pig Latin mumbo jumbo and waving her arms in staccato fashion, as the grubby, now zombified congregation does a herky-jerky dance to her tune. It’s absurd and laughable, but if you’re like me, you can’t stop watching. 


The scene stealer: Kay Walsh as Stephanie Bax

Through it all, though, Miss Joan Fontaine never loses her dignity, displaying ladylike heroism that results in an abrupt happy ending. As well, she’s photographed superbly—there’s nothing remotely 'hagsplotation' about her beleaguered Miss Mayfield, usually appearing beautifully coiffed and dressed in timeless tweed and chic sweater sets despite all the satanic fuss. (It’s always a plus to be a producer!)

Though this was her final bow as a big screen actress, Fontaine did continue working intermittently in television, appearing memorably in the ABC miniseries The Users (based on Joyce Haber’s racy Hollywood roman a clef novel) and in an episode of The Love Boat in 1977. 

Miss Fontaine was still quite lovely at age 50 when she made this picture

Today, a bevy of former A-List actresses continue the Guignol tradition via producers such as Blumhouse, lending their names to shockers and thrillers of varying quality, usually for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. I just recently saw Barbara Hershey (The Entity) as a feisty nursing home resident battling ghosts and demons; and Paula Prentiss (The Stepford Wives) as a wheelchair-bound dementia patient haunting and taunting her at-home caregiver. (Sorry, I already can't remember the titles of those two epics...and won't be writing about them. But I’m thrilled that these talented ladies are still working!) 

Thanks so much to the wonderful Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry of Cinematic Catharsis for hosting this amazing blogathon and getting us all in the Halloween mood. Look forward to reading everyone’s posts.

24 comments:

  1. Fabulous post as always Chris, and thanks for the pointers for these movies. As you know I am a sucker for the later roles of those on screen greats. Really keen to see this one as I do love watching that creepy kid Martin Stephen in films. Thanks for joining the blogathon and keep your eyes peeled around the beginning of November for another announcement. Have a lovely weekend.

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  2. Excellent and informative review! I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen this, but I suspect I'll be adding this to the top of my "must see" list. The climax sounds utterly bonkers. Thanks so much for joining our little blogathon!

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  3. Hi Gill - thanks for hosting! Martin Stephens was great in this (small part though) and love him in Village of the damned as well. Have a great weekend!
    -Chris

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  4. Hi Barry - thank you so much for hosting the blogathon! This movie was not available in the U.S. for many years...and is almost never shown on the classic movie channels. As soon as I could get a DVD I grabbed it!
    -Chris

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  5. Great review!
    I have not seen the witches, but I had to hear the spoilers and I'm so glad I did! That alone makes me want to see this film.

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  6. The Witches was on a local channel last week and I meant to take a look. Now, I am glad I had the opportunity to read your article and will catch it on the next go-round.

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  7. As usual, Chris, you've put me in the mood for seeing this movie. Might have caught it years ago on TV in chopped-up form but for some reason have never seen it since. Great write-up!

    Fontaine was a very gifted actress: Rebecca, Suspicion, Letter from an Unknown Woman, many others. I've no doubt she acquits herself nicely in this Hammer film as well.

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  8. Hi John—thanks for stopping by! I think you’ll get a kick out of it—Walsh is a hoot!
    - Chris

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  9. Hi Patricia—not sure whether you’d enjoy this or not, but Miss Fontaine delivers with style as always. Let me know your thoughts if you see.
    - Chris

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  10. Hi Bill—I appreciate Fontaine’s work more and more over the years; she is often overshadowed by that sibling we all know and love! One of my favorite Fontaine performances is in a soapy melodrama called Born to be Bad. Need to see that one again. Thanks as always for reading.
    - Chris

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  11. Hey Chris, I've always meant to watch this "Witch," but haven't. Now it's on my list! Your description of it makes it sound like great entertainment. Joan indeed looks quite lovely here, and at least she wasn't wielding an ax or serving someone a dead rat... cough, cough. Also, have you ever seen "Eye of the Devil," with Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Sharon Tate, David Hemming, and Donald Pleasance? I think it deals with witchcraft or satanism. Think they'd make a good double feature?
    Cheers to you, and hope you are well,
    Rick

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  12. I don't think I realised this was Fontaine's last film! It's true those older actresses did lend a touch of class to some less reputable material in the 60s, but Joan is at least allowed to keep her dignity in this one. Great read.

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  13. Hi Rick — thanks for stopping by. YES, I am a big fan of the Eye of The Devil and think it would make a great double feature with this one…that is another horror film I need to write about. Happy early Halloween!
    - Chris

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  14. Hi Jay—thanks for reading. This film has great production values and an intelligent script; the outlandish ending is a bit schlocky though. And Joan Fontaine is nothing if not classy!
    - Chris

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  15. I chuckled at your comment about the perks of being a producer, because, as you point out, Joan looks absolutely fabulous, quite unlike some other late career ventures into horror. And then there's the wacky ceremony. It's a tall order to depict a black mass under a strict content code, but the film gives it the old college try, and like you said, you can't look away. :) A wonderful review of a film that does generate some sinister atmosphere, and that deserves more than ridicule!

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  16. Hi Brian, thanks for reading. The climax is indeed totally wacky but the setup and unfolding of plot are quite good, and so are the acting and writing. Kay Walsh’s character, until she dons that spooky headdress, is actually very intelligent and philosophical, giving a cold blooded explanation and justification for evil. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!
    - Chris

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  17. I remember buying this (and surely paying WAY too much for it) at Suncoast Motion Picture Company in a clamshell VHS!! The wraparound cover slid out of the plastic case and contained trivia and pictures on the inside (there was a whole series of these and I bought several. The poster artwork usually far outdid the actual movie inside!) You are spot-on in your assessments. Francon-Davies was memorable and Kay Walsh went way, way out there! That finale was unreal... and I kept wondering if Walsh was splashed by hot candle wax as she did her thing! Fontaine did look great and did keep her dignity, but... her hair was never the same from frame to frame (windy U.K. locations?) and she did, after all, nearly get trampled by some hepped-up sheep! LOLOL Thanks.

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  18. Hi Poseidon - HA! Thanks for reminding me about the sheep trampling scene - they did artfully apply one tiny spot of mud onto La Fontaine's face so as not to smudge her Max Factor! And you are right about the windblown looks...so I stand corrected; there is a bit of verisimilitude. I am always delighted when you visit and comment...you and I share many of the same sensibilities!!
    -Chris

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  19. The opening scenes work well and establish a nice sense of unease. The highlight for me, though, is Kay Walsh, who attacks her role as the villain with such zest that she almost pulls off wearing that headdress.

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  20. Hi Rick, thanks for stopping by to read. You’re right, Miss Walsh steals the show, plunging headlong into the guignol with gleeful abandon. And her attire would make the perfect Halloween costume; if only I had a deer head on a wall handy along with some candles…oh well, maybe next year!
    - Chris

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  21. Thanks for this. The Witches came up on one of my streaming services and I keep meaning to check it out. Your review provided the additional push I need.

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  22. Hi Michael - thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you enjoy! Let us know your thoughts when you see it!
    -Chris

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  23. Another Hammer goodie I've never heard of! I'm surprised it hasn't crossed my paths in all these years because I do love Joan Fontane. And you know how much I love over-the-top miscalculations, so your hilarious description of the conclusion almost makes it sound like a must-see.
    Thanks to you I checked out that Barbara Hershey horror film "The Manor" and really enjoyed her performance even if, like this film, the ending left a bit to be desired. Being the fount of information you are, I now must hunt down the heretofore unknown to me Paula Prentiss film you cite. From Jane Fonda to Diane Lane, it seems streaming is giving a lot of older actresses opportunities to show they're only getting better.
    Thanks for the great write up, Chris!

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  24. Hi Ken - so glad you found the Barbara Hershey movie; she did rise above her material. The Paula Prentiss one is called The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House...not as good as Hershey's turn and poor Paula has to play a dementia patient!

    But The Witches (I grew up knowing it by the US title The Devil's Own) is definitely worth watching...hope you enjoy if you see.

    Thanks as always for stopping by! Le Cinema Dreams is one of my very favorite movie blogs!!
    -Chris

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