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The Devil's Own

The Devil's Own(1966)

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teaser The Devil's Own (1966)

What sort of roles can a woman over 45 expect in Hollywood? Well, if you were a working actress during the sixties, there were plenty of opportunities in the horror genre. After the phenomenal success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, past-their-prime stars like Tallulah Bankhead, Olivia de Havilland and Geraldine Page were recruited for Grand Guignols like Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), Lady in a Cage (1964) and Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). One of the lesser known entries in this specialized category was The Devil's Own (1966), a tautly-directed tale of the supernatural from Hammer Studios starring Joan Fontaine. (It was distributed under the title The Witches in England).

In a suspenseful opening sequence, we first see Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine), a schoolteacher in a rural African village, being terrorized by the local witchdoctor. The incident drives her to a nervous breakdown and she returns to England where she eventually finds a position as the headmistress at a private school run by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh). Things aren't quite as they appear on the surface though; Alan is not really the cleric he presents himself to be (even though he dresses like a priest and plays taped organ music in his study) and sister Stephanie hides her own agenda behind a facade of superstition and paranoia. Soon, a series of strange events occur driving Gwen to a second nervous breakdown but she manages to return to Haddaby School to uncover the cause of all the trouble - a witch coven practicing virgin sacrifices!

Much of the exterior work on The Devil's Own was filmed in the English village of Hambleden and on the estate of Lord Hambleden, owner of the popular W.H. Smith bookstore in England. Among the familiar faces in the supporting cast is Martin Stephens (he played the demonic alien child in Village of the Damned, 1960, and the haunted boy in The Innocents, 1961) but the real scene-stealer here is Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948, The Ruling Class, 1972) who appears in full black mass regalia at the film's fever pitch climax. Also notable is the screenplay by Nigel Kneale, the famous science fiction/horror writer who penned the popular Quatermass trilogy for the BBC (all three were later filmed by Hammer Studios), and the direction by Cyril Frankel who hadn't helmed a feature for Hammer since his once-controversial child molestation drama, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960).

Interestingly enough, Fontaine was the one who initiated the film, buying the rights to Peter Curtis's novel and bringing it to Hammer for development. But she was insistent on describing the film as "a detective story rather than straight horror," as if to remove any doubt that she was slumming in a genre beneath her talents. Unfortunately, The Devil's Own was her final film before retiring from the screen and barely attracted the notice of the public or critics though today it holds the distinction of being one of Hammer's more offbeat excursions into the occult.

Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: Cyril Frankel
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, based on the novel by Peter Curtis
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editing: James Needs
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Joan Fontaine (Gwen Mayfield), Kay Walsh (Stephanie Bax), Alec McCowen (Alan Bax), Ann Bell (Sally), Ingrid Brett (Linda), John Collin (Dowsett), Martin Stephens (Ronnie Dowsett).

by Jeff Stafford

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