Hammer House of Horror’s sole venture into the realms of folk-horror is inevitably one of my favourite episodes of the anthology series. The plot is relatively straightforward: teetering on the edge of nervous collapse, exacerbated by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity, the alcoholic film composer David Winter is surprised to discover the witch Lucinda Jessup, a previous occupant of his house, magically transported from the 1620s to his stables. Fortunately, nobody’s incredulity at this turn of events lasts for very long, and she proceeds to claim Winter as her own, whilst subjecting his wife to a campaign of supernatural persecution. Unusually for the series, good triumphs in the end: Lucinda is eventually vanquished and the Winters are reunited. This perhaps detracts from the horror somewhat, but the episode remains satisfying overall.
Much of its success can be attributed to the casting of Patricia Quinn as Lucinda. Born to play witches, her performance is as ripe as ever, and even the rustic accent she adopts cannot disguise her gloriously plummy tones. She is mesmerising in every scene in which she appears and the only reason she does not overshadow everybody else on screen is that she is acting alongside Jon Finch as David Winter. He brings his typical intensity to the role, powerfully conveying his character’s steady dissolution over the course of the episode. Prunella Gee as Mary Winter inevitably appears bland when compared with Quinn, but she turns in solid work nonetheless. The only other character of note is Ian McCulloch who does a fine job of portraying the sort of cad who cuckolds his friend and then abandons his lover when she most needs his support.
The authenticity of the image of witchcraft presented in the episode is variable. On the one hand, poppets are always guaranteed to lend atmosphere to a production, and the principles of sympathetic magic by which they operate are properly observed. We also see poltergeist-type activity ascribed to witchcraft rather than ghosts, which corresponds to the prevailing opinion in the 17th Century. Unfortunately, however, there is one glaring inaccuracy: supposed witches were not burnt at the stake in England—they were hanged. Now this is an error common to a great deal of fiction dealing with witchcraft, and writers may plead poetic license on the grounds that burning is a more intrinsically dramatic mode of execution than hanging, thereby emphasising the horror. Nonetheless, it is a mistake that manages to irk me every time it appears.
Surprisingly, unlike so much “hexploitation” (and many vintage Hammer productions) Witching Time is not guilty of being overly misogynistic—a few moments of gratuitous nudity aside. Despite being the ostensible villain, Lucinda is portrayed as independent and adroit; the audience is even encouraged to sympathise with her to some extent and be disturbed by her ultimate demise. Equally, Mary is no damsel-in-distress but a resourceful and ultimately loyal woman who single-handedly defeats Lucinda’s evil influence. Compare this with David, who is spineless and ineffectual, or Charles, who is selfish and treacherous. This reversal of traditional roles, and portrait of witchcraft as empowerment, feels refreshingly modern, and help to distinguish the episode as one of the series’s most enjoyable forays into the supernatural.
Produced by ITC Television : originally transmitted 13th September 1980