Written by: Anthony Read
Directed by: Don Leaver
Starring: Jon Finch, Patricia Quinn, and Prunella Gee
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Where be your fire now? Where be all of you? Dead. Dead!"
After struggling to keep up with the shifting winds of pop culture during the 70s, Hammer Films shuttered its feature filmmaking division towards the end of the decade, effectively ending one of the genre’s most storied runs. The studio wasn’t completely done, however, as it mounted a small screen coda in the form of Hammer House of Horror, a short-lived series that would be its last remnants until its resurrection decades later. In an era where horror would come to dominate airwaves, it’s perhaps fitting that Hammer itself would help to kick things off with “Witching Time,” a charming little opener that attempts to recapture the halcyon days of 70s British folk horror.
Film composer David Winter (Jon Finch) is holed up in a countryside farmhouse, noodling away at his keyboard in a vain effort to score the latest horror flick starring his wife, Mary (Prunella Gee). Boredom sets in, at least until a thunderstorm sweeps through and sends him to his stables to check on Mary’s horse. He finds the creature to be in perfectly fine condition but is startled to also find a mysterious, hysterical woman (Patricia Quinn) who claims to be a 300-year-old witch. Now returned from her purgatorial damnation, Lucinda is ready to raise hell once again—and turn David’s life inside-out in the process.
Seeing Hammer’s vivid, widescreen grandeur become somewhat muted on the small screen is an initially strange sight. While “Witching Time” has its moments that tap into the studio’s vintage days (most of them belonging to Quinn, whose impish performance drives this episode), the intimate scale is a bit removed from the studio’s epic feature productions. It’s strange to call anything associated with Hammer “quaint,” yet that’s exactly what this is: an old-fashioned, bewitching little yarn that doesn’t trade in overt shocks (a bloody, decapitated bird in a bed sheet qualifies as the episode’s most grisly image) so much as it seeks to exploit rubber-necking drama between husband and wife. Lucinda’s intrusion (and Quinn’s manic turn) mostly incites distrust between the two: David is already convinced Mary is having an affair, while she’s rightly unsatisfied that he’s blaming his erratic behavior on a centuries-old witch.
For a brief moment, it looks like an Amicus-style mean streak will resolve the drama in horrific fashion; instead, “Witching Time” features a relatively tame, conventional ending that would have been better served in the studio’s glory days, when the restraint on display here wasn’t a priority. Whether it was by design or mandated by British censors, the climax here is a bit too much of a subdued payoff for the episode’s manic energy. Something a little bit more show-stopping and outrageous would have been preferable, particularly if it could have found a way to recognize that Quinn’s Lucinda is the absolute best thing going for it. A shame she had to be burned at the stake for the sin of stealing the goddamn show here, apparently.
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