Patricia QuinnIan McCullochAnthony ReadJon Finch
Hammer House of Horror 01: Witching Time
Medium: TV
Year: 1980
Director: Don Leaver
Writer: Anthony Read
Keywords: horror, Hammer
Country: UK
Series: << Hammer House of Horror >>
Actor: Jon Finch, Patricia Quinn, Prunella Gee, Ian McCulloch, Lennard Pearce, Margaret Anderson
Format: 51 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090328/
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 25 March 2011
I have a hypothesis, based on the five-thirteenths of this series I've seen so far, that the weakest Hammer House of Horror episodes have the most nudity in them. You can see why they chose this to open the series, since naked women are attention-grabbing, but it's not very good.
Until this, my least favourite had been The House That Bled To Death, with a bit of discreet "look at the neighbour across the street" nudity. I hadn't hated it, mind you. I thought it was pretty respectable, but it just hadn't been my cup of tea. Witching Time though manages to be downright poor. It's never unwatchable and you certainly couldn't call it an atrocity, but it's mediocre and has a lacklustre central performance.
The plot involves a witch, as you probably guessed. Jon Finch is working at home when a storm whips up and suddenly he's got Patricia Quinn in his house. She's a bit weird and seems to think she travelled through time to get here, so he phones his doctor and the plot wibbles on from there. It's also written by the script editor, actually. Anthony Read only wrote one episode of Hammer House of Horror and this is it, which bearing in mind his Doctor Who writing credits (The Invasion of Time, The Horns of Nimon) makes me grateful that he didn't do it more often. He's got a solid writing CV from when he wasn't also script-editing, mind you. Sapphire and Steel and the three Chocky series in the mid-1980s will make me forgive a lot, but he didn't work very often as a script/story editor in his career and I can't say I'm that surprised.
Incidentally, this was his next (and final) script-editing job after taking over from Robert Holmes on Doctor Who with orders to tone down the horror. Heh.
Anyway, my objection to the script is the way that everyone's sceptical to the point of idiocy. Yes, it's a genre convention, but even so it's always annoying for the audience and here Anthony Read takes it to extremes. I don't mind Finch phoning a doctor when Quinn's claiming to be from the 17th century, but Prunella Gee and Ian McCulloch practically jump through hoops to avoid believing Finch's story. If your husband insists that a woman was in the house, is it so ridiculous to take into account the idea that there might have been? If he furthermore has deep gouges on his back, why should you assume that he did it to himself? If nothing else, that would have been difficult. Idiots, the lot of them.
Then you've got the marital angle. Both Finch and Gee are unfaithful to each other and the script sets this up early to look like a big deal. Does this go anywhere? No, it doesn't. It's adding flavour to the story and it's interesting as far as it goes, but I'd have preferred it to be tied more strongly into the finale, or indeed into the second half of the episode. It's possible that Read intended this to be a steamy femme fatale story, with sexual obsession and two women fighting over their hypnotised man, but if so then it's not realised as it should have been.
Now, the acting. Jon Finch is solid, being a Shakespearian actor who's worked for Hitchcock and Polanski. He even had a track record with Hammer, having ten years earlier been in The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein. Patricia Quinn though is a disappointment, despite having won geek immortality from her role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She's not frightening and she never convinced me that she was from the 17th century. She's competent, has energy and takes her clothes off, so I've no complaints there, but there's a Patricia Quinn-shaped hole in the middle of this story where a top-quality actress could have raised seven hells and scared the living daylights out of us.
As for Gee as Finch's wife, she explains her unremarkable imdb page with that "please forgive me". I simply lost interest, I'm afraid. You've got silly witch stuff that lacks intensity and seems to think that nudity is an acceptable substitute.
The Doctor Who round-up has to begin with Read, obviously, but Patricia Quinn is in Dragonfire and a Big Finish audio, while Ian McCulloch is in Warriors of the Deep. McCulloch was having a bit of a horror glut around now, incidentally, with Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and Zombie Holocaust (1980).
I didn't like this one. It's not a catastrophe, but it's half-baked. Very little here is any good at all and I have a ton of nitpicks. (a) I like the historical detail about witch hunts, but the production blows that by dressing Quinn like one of those pagan hippy self-styled witches from modern times. (b) The grave's too big in the burial scene. (c) The Wizard of Oz finale made me laugh, but that turned out not to be the real ending after all. (d) The pre-credits sequence is unimaginative, although it's not quite what it looks like. (e) Even the nudity's a bit off-putting. However all that said, there's nothing fundamentally broken here and it's perfectly watchable horror nonsense. They did choose it for the season opener, after all. I'd imagine most people watched it, didn't think much about it afterwards and tuned in again next week. It's not too bad for television.