Hammer Double Feature
U.K. / 1967, 1966
Michael Carreras / Cyril Frankel
Martine Beswick, Edina Ronay
Michael Latimer, Joan Fontaine
Kay Walsh, Duncan Lamont
Color / Not Rated
Format: DVD
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC / 2-Disc set)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
Prehistoric Women
The Witches
The "Extra Cheese" icon applies to PREHISTORIC WOMEN only
This past January Anchor Bay re-released most of its Hammer Collection titles on DVD, repackaged as double-disc "Limited Edition" sets. These are the exact same discs that have been on the market in stand-alone form since the late 1990s. Since these double features sell for less than the single disc editions, Hammer fans who neglected to pick up certain titles in the past can now do so without forking over an inordinate amount of cash. It must be said, however, that some of these films represent the Hammer filmography at its nadir or at a sub-par level at best. Such is the case with two of the studio's productions from 1966, Prehistoric Women and The Witches. (The latter was released in the U.S. as The Devil's Own, frequently showing up on TV during the '70s). There's really no theme or actor to tie the two films together. Perhaps they were paired for the Limited Edition because they both happen to feature really bad dance sequences... (Actually, they played together as a theatrical double-bill in the States.)
    Prehistoric Women is one of the all-time lamest Hammer films, which isn't surprising since it was written and directed by Michael Carrerras (The Lost Continent). It's a low budget attempt at an Edgar Rice Burroughs-type fantasy adventure with plenty of scantily-clad gals on hand to keep the male audience interested. It fails miserably to either thrill or titillate. In Africa, safari bwana David Marchant (Michael Latimer) is tracking a wounded leopard when he's captured by a mysterious native tribe called the Kunaka. For violating their sacred territory, the tribe's high priest (Bari Jonson) cruelly forces David to endure a lengthy floor show by an African dance troupe. (The producers were obviously determined to get the absolute maximum out of the dancers they'd hired.) The white man, however, sternly endures this torture imagine the worst Oscars telecast routine, only with an African theme and so is led into a cave and brought before a life-sized statue of an albino rhinoceros to be put to death. Just as he's about to be perforated with spears David touches the rhino statue's horn... and with a bolt of lightning all the blacks are frozen immobile, like statues themselves. It's as if time has stopped for everyone except him. Then a cave wall slowly splits open to reveal a lush, verdant jungle (actually a cheesy indoor set) just beyond the fissure. So what does Great White Hunter do? Does he run back the way he came, escaping the Kunaka and returning to base camp? No. He immediately plunges through this inexplicable dimension door and into the jungle.
    Here he's startled to encounter a shapely blonde woman in an animal skin bikini, who bites him on the arm when he tries to address her. She runs away in fear; as David follows he and the girl are captured by a band of spear-carrying Amazons, all Caucasian brunettes dressed like ancient barbarians. The prisoners are then taken to another soundstage, the cave-village where rules the evil Queen Kari (and more than half the entire movie takes place). David discovers that he's stumbled upon a primitive society totally dominated by dark-haired warrior women, who are served by enslaved blondes. (I suppose if there were any redheads they'd represent the Middle Class... These "prehistoric" maidens just happen to speak perfect English, too.) What few men remain alive have degenerated into near brutedom and toil in a dungeon-like cavern at the orders of their raven-tressed masters. (Just what they toil at all day isn't explained.) David obviously represents the freshest bit of man-meat anyone's seen in a while, so Kari (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde's Martine Beswick) wants him as her sex slave. Not exactly the worst of fates, one would think, but David is repulsed by her cruelty and has already fallen in love with the blonde girl he met in the jungle, Saria (Edina Ronay). He stoically resists Kari's physical charms and is punished, thrown into the dungeon with the rest of the men. Later, spurred on by Saria, our hero pretends to bow to Kari's commands and serve her willingly. (Ol' Dave doesn't appear all that repulsed when the horny queen jumps his bones...) Eventually, after a couple of really awful dance numbers by the blonde girls and a solo "mating" dance by Beswick, who manages to pull it off despite the music David leads the blonde women and the men in a revolt to overthrow Kari's evil rule. He also turns out to be the "Stranger" who it is said will fulfill the Prophecy of the White Rhino, the utterly ridiculous framing device that attempts to explain everything.
    It's every bit as stupid as it sounds. Instead of conjuring the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, Carreras and Co. succeed only in making a shoddy Monogram jungle oater that shows a bit more midriff and is in color instead of black and white. Everything in the film looks phonier than a $3 bill. With the exception of Martine Beswick, with her exotic looks and panther-like grace, none of the women seem in the slightest "prehistoric", especially given the mascara and false eyelashes. The dance numbers really grate once you stop laughing. Thank God there are at least a few cheesy chuckles to be had, otherwise this would easily rate a "1" score. Ultimately, though, the film is neither exploitative enough it'd rate a mild "PG" today or (unintentionally) funny enough to be worth your time. Definitely for Beswick worshippers only.
    The Witches: Middle-aged teacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine, Oscar-winning actress for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion) suffers a nervous breakdown after fleeing an African mission school in the midst of a tribal uprising. She returns to her native Britain and, after recovering her mental health, takes a job as the headmistress of a school in the tiny English village of Haddaby. This fresh start and change of scenery would seem the ideal epilogue to her harrowing experiences on the Dark Continent (where she'd been threatened by a voodoo witchdoctor). Haddaby is peaceful and picturesque, stocked with salt-of-the-earth citizens seemingly content with the unhurried rythyms of rural life. All, of course, is not as it seems.
Slowly, Miss Mayfair discovers a significant portion of Haddaby's population to be pagans. (That the village church has lain derelict for decades would seem an obvious sign that something's askew.) Not unfamiliar with the trappings of the occult, she comes to suspect that a virginal 15-year old girl one of her students has been chosen as a ritual sacrifice. Conveniently the girl's boyfriend is suddenly struck gravely ill by means of a voodoo doll, putting him out of the picture. Gwen shares her suspicions with Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), wealthy eccentric and pillar of the community, who has an interest in the metaphysical. With proof of her theories just out of reach, the once friendly townsfolk take an increasingly hostile attitude to the new schoolmarm...
Well-acted, with intelligent dialog (screenwriter Nigel Kneale also wrote the scripts for the Quatermass films), The Witches really only has one flaw... but it's a big one. It's dull. Deadly dull, in fact. After a strong opening in Africa the film takes much too leisurely a time in getting up to speed again which, in truth, it never quite succeeds in doing. The plot, adapted from a novel Fontaine bought the rights to (and then brought to Hammer), presents things as a mystery which we the audience have long since figured out. The climactic ritual the villagers of the coven spastically rub fruit all over themselves and do a goofy dance before the sacrificial virgin is to be slain is underwhelming to say the least. You'll be checking your watch throughout this film, I assure you.

As mentioned, these are the same discs Anchor Bay first released some years ago. Only the exterior packaging is new. Being the older DVD, Prehistoric Women's letterboxed (2.35:1) transfer is not 16x9 enhanced, while that of The Witches (1.66:1) is. A/V quality isn't spectacular but is quite good, on a par with AB's other "second-tier" Hammer Collection releases. (Prehistoric Women obviously suffered the most from Pan & Scan broadcasts/VHS editions). In addition to their respective theatrical trailers, both titles share the same two black and white American TV spots (20 and 60 seconds) that touted the Prehistoric Women/Witches double bill. Each DVD also contains a World of Hammer featurette narrated by Oliver Reed: for Prehistoric Women it's "Lands Before Time" (also seen on the Lost Continent disc); "Wicked Women" for The Witches. Keep in mind that, because it's a pre-2000 DVD, you have to flip Prehistoric Women over to Side B to access the extra features. 2/05/04