Witchfinder General (UK - BD RB)
The Wilson Bros see if this Michael Reeves classic is stil able to bewitch...
Witchcraft - the very name summons up images of times long past where the worshipping of non-Christian gods and imagery was more than just frowned upon, it was positively hazardous to the heathen's health. There was a period when the hunting down - and subsequent torture, trial and murder of witches - was sanctioned by the state and the most infamous practitioners of this odious pursuit was the "witch-finder", Matthew Hopkins.
So many words have been expended on Witchfinder General, the third and final feature film of tragic director Michael Reeves over the years that anything we might ejaculate into the discussion has either been said before or isn't worth bothering with it too much, so we aren't going to even bother trying to add anything new to the discussion about one of the most controversial/revered horror movies to come along in the last four decades.
For those unfamiliar with it, the story is thus: the year is 1645, and our fair country is in the grip of civil war. Mathew Hopkins (Vincent Price) has taken advantage of the dissolution of law and order in England to carve himself the position of defender of the faith for the entire populous. Enforcing the new extension of Christianity over Paganism, Hopkins is granted the title of Witchfinder General by parliament and sets about ridding the land of the blasphemy of worshiping other Gods, and even overstepping his mark so far as to count Catholicism as that which must be stamped out. Using the most evil of methods in the name of God, Hopkins extracts confessions from his victims, poor souls whose only crime might have been to have something Hopkins wanted, or just to collect the bounty on "witches" he put out of their misery.
Whilst having a brief spot of leave from the Civil War, young Roundhead Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) returns to the Suffolk village of Brandeston to see his future wife, Sara (Leslie Dwyer) and her priest uncle John (Rupert Davies). After leaving, Matthew Hopkins eventually questions John and soon turns his attentions to Sara, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure that her uncle does not suffer the fate of most who are accused of witchcraft, but with Hopkins being such a despicable individual, any bargain made with him would have any hope of being honoured.
Witchfinder General was based upon a novel of the same name written by Ronald Bassett; the rights to the novel were picked up by Tony Tenser's Tigon Productions, which had already produced director Michael Reeves' previous directorial endeavour, The Sorcerers, and producer Tenser saw some exploitable potential in the main premise of Bassett's novel. Tigon weren't exactly at the forefront of British horror - they were lagging behind Amicus, yet streets ahead of Tyburn, which wasn't saying much - and Tenser was almost certainly looking for something fresh and original, so the chance of producing a film that would be unlike anything that had come before it was probably too good to resist.
Matthew Hopkins is an interesting, complex and highly odious character, one who seeks to profit from misery and suffering, not only in financial terms, but also in stature and his carnal desires. As with many forms of evil, Hopkins literally cloaks himself with a thin veneer of respectability, outwardly appearing to be on the side of justice and God, but in actuality, he is far more dangerous than a bunch of non-Christians would ever be. Hopkins' background as a lawyer allows him to know not only the letter of the law, but also how to bend it and hide behind it in order to carry out his foul deeds. Vincent Price revels in the part, though not showing it outwardly, in that it was probably the first role in quite some time that he had been able to really get his teeth into it; director Michael Reeves famously butted heads with Price throughout the production - Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance for the role, but was saddled with Price when American International Productions came on-board. When Price originally intended to play the part in his usual flamboyant manner, it was in contrast to Reeves' intention, which was a degree of realism that the rest of the production was grounded in; Reeves was eventually able to tone down Price's trademark flamboyancy and resulted in of his most memorable performances. It is worth noting that regardless of who played Hopkins, both Price and Hopkins were far too old for the role, as the real Matthew Hopkins died at the age of 27 from tuberculosis, having been publicly humiliated and discredited.
Ian Ogilvy gives an endearing performance as the young solider embroiled in a tangled web of love, duty and morality; Ogilvy would later go on to for doing a pretty good impersonation of Roger Moore in The Return of the Saint, but his earlier work is often overlooked by those who just remember him as Simon Templar. Ogilvy embodies the sort of person who has his whole perception of what he is fighting for shaken to its very foundations and yet still driven by something that can override even the most basic of personal beliefs - love. When Marshall finally gets to exact his revenge on those who wronged him, it is brutal, as though he is in a trance and some sort of primal, inner rage has been unleashed, showing that Ogilvy was capable of much more than raising an eyebrow whilst imitating Roger Moore.
Newcomer Leslie Dwyer is particularly good as Sara, an innocent who is forced to lose her innocence in several ways as she fights to clear her priest uncle of the charge of witchcraft that has been levelled against him, even having to offer herself sexually to Hopkins. It's a part with a much greater depth than the standard period Hammer heroine, and Dwyer is able to show the range needed to pull off the role, as her vulnerability and her inner resolve is at the core of the film.
Two well-known British stars put in one-scene appearances; Patrick Wymark turned up for a day's filming to play the role of Oliver Cromwell, one of the commanders of the New Model Army and Wymark brings his considerable dramatic talents to bear in a brief but memorable scene. Wilfred Bramble also does a good turn as Master Loach and it's always good to see him in a role other than the one he was most famous for, though it would have been interesting to hear him ask the 17th century equivalent of the usual question employed in some of the more annoying class-based episode of Steptoe and Son - "E're, where's the privvy?"
The period detail is near faultless - even by the late sixties, modern life was encroaching upon most areas of Britain, making period films harder to produce, as the appearance of television aerials and modern external fixtures and fittings on houses were becoming increasingly prominent, even Hammer were starting to find it a bit tough when location-scouting by this point. Witchfinder General has a marvellously authentic period feel to it, with tremendously earthy locations and meticulously crafted sets.
The “reach” of Reeves’ film is a long one, influencing many movies over the next couple of decades, and even re-entering “witch hunt” into the lexicon again, where it had fallen into disuse whilst flourishing during the McCarthy era in America the decade before. We’re not sure if it entirely counts as an example of a “cultural impact”, but the final scene where Ogilvy screams: “You took him from me!!!” after he is denied the pleasure of killing Mathew Hopkins was played out at the end of Mark Goldblatt’s 1988 zombie/cop/action/comedy/horror opus Dead Heat, where Treat Williams yells: “You cheated me” when the Darren McGavin blows his own brains out to stop Williams getting his revenge. For those thinking that we've read too much into it, who else is in that scene? None-other than Vincent Price! Influence is an untameable beast at times.
The violence in Witchfinder General pulls few punches, with all manner of hangings, burnings, axe-murders, etc being shown in graphic detail; the British Board of Film Censors were not impressed when the script was submitted to them prior to production (this was a standard practice back then), and revisions were made and approval grudgingly granted, but it was still heavily censored and the film remained that way for decades. In America, it suffered the indigity of AIP deciding to cash in on the fact that it was a period film starring Vincent Price and the retitled it The Conqueror Worm and plastered Edgar Allen Poe's name all over it (along with having Price narrate some of Poe's poem), making it seem like it was Roger Corman adapting yet another one of the works of Baltimore's most celebrated drunk; matters were worse when the film surfaced on video in the US in the early eighties - the wonderful authentic score by Paul Ferris had be unceremoniously replaced by ghastly synthesised muzak by Kendall Schmidt. The passing of time has allowed the original title, along with Ferris' score - not to mention a little common-sense - to be restored and Witchfinder General is now available on Blu-Ray completely uncensored - so how does it look...?
We have seen numerous versions of Witchfinder General over the years - lurking around somewhere in our collection is the original video release from thirty years ago - but never before have we seen Michael Reeves’ masterpiece looking as wonderful as it does here.
What first strikes you is the clarity of the image; it’s certainly true that whilst it would not be mistaken for a modern film, it is wonderfully sharp and has a richness to the colours that really make them pop, especially the reds on the tunics. There is a pleasing amount of grain, which means that it is free from the dreaded waxiness that is inextricably associated with digital noise reduction.
The print is not completely clean - there is the odd nick and bit of debris appearing on the screen, but when the print looks as fresh and as vibrant as this, then it's certainly nothing to complain about. There has been no attempt to clean up the optical compositing during the transitions (wipes, fades, dissolves, etc), which isn't a big problem, as they have always been there and should be considered a part of the original film.
The soundtrack for Witchfinder General comes in mono, but thankfully it is presented in lossless DTS HD-MA 2.0 and sounds pretty robust; dialogue is clean and clear and it handles Paul Ferris' wonderfully evocative music score with a pleasing level of assurance.
Audio commentary: Benjamin Halligan (author of British Film Makers: Michael Reeves) and filmmaker/writer Michael Armstrong combine their considerable collective knowledge of the movie and the people involved in Witchfinder General. We have a lot of admiration/affection for Michael Armstrong and his work, knowing him primarily for his hilariously insightful writing on the scripts of Eskimo Nell, The Sex Thief, etc, so we knew that a good time was guaranteed from the outset.
Halligan tries to entice answers to questions film scholars have been pondering for years, but Armstrong is able to skilfully wriggle out of them through rattling off an amusing quip, or just ignoring them completely. At times, he will debunk certain subtext which has been read into the movie which just isn’t there, putting said scholars’ noses out of joint. The best example of this comes early on, when Halligan tries to get Armstrong to clarify how the beauty of the forest seen in the opening contrasts with the apparatus of death made of the very same wood.
There are many amusing instances, but our favourite might be when Armstrong retells the famous example of Tony Tenser wanting to cut corners on the production wherever possible. With an hilariously accurate impression of the Tigon boss, he reveals that he wanted to create the Battle of Sedgemoor using “six people and lots of smoke”. We have great fun impersonating Tenser at any opportunity, and we have to say that Mr Armstrong has him down pat.
It’s rather ironic that with the indignity of having Witchfinder General re-titled and re-edited the movie to it into Roger Corman’s Poe movies, Armstrong apologies for a key line from Price being seemingly straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. “There’ll soon be talk of his wife Lenore being prematurely buried alive" he chuckles.
Armstrong takes time to debunk the persistent rumour that Reeves committed suicide during a bout of depression. Sure, he was being treated for just such a condition, including the rather radical step of ECT, but Armstrong is firmly of the belief that his overdose was purely an unfortunate accident. Given that this was a the time when the combination of pills and booze killed a number of people, including Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and that the coroner’s verdict agreed with accidental overdose, it looks likely that the depression was incidental in his death.
There is more than a few stories and mild swipes at Vincent Price from Armstrong, but while he criticises many things about him, he is adamant that Price was right for the role rather than the originally intended Donald Pleasance. The British star would have played Hopkins as an ineffectual bureaucrat, but Price’s physicality and aloof manner served to make the character genuinely chilling, once his performance was dialled back. Armstrong got on well with Price, keeping in touch with him until his death.
The initial scholarly tone is quickly abandoned, nicely reverting to a relaxed, light-hearted talk about one of the great British movie of the sixties. There are many fascinating facts, stories and anecdotes, with any number of myths roundly debunked, coupled with a large dash of irony and good humour running through the whole thing. Recommended listening.
Vincent Price on Aspel and Company: Despite his geniality, Vinnie never was one to suffer fools gladly and his appearance on Michael Aspel’s chat-show provides a perfect illustration of this point.
We have never really liked Aspel as an interviewer, as he has the tendency to toady to his guests, much in the way Parkinson has started to over the last decade. You have to remember that this is the man who trashed his reputation when he was delighted to have booked Sly, Arnie and Bruce Willis on his show, only to have them use it as a ruthless plug for their new Planet Hollywood restaurant opening in London. Sure, he regarded said show as the low-point of his career, but we just look upon it as typifying his toothlessness. We still have that show on tape, but find it too painful to sit through. Aspel also had the intendancy to interrupt his subject in mid-flow to steer the conversation onto the next question or subject on his clipboard, which is not such a crime when your subject is inarticulate or rambling, but when it's someone as articulate, witty and erudite as Vincent Price, then it just shows up the interviewer as unprofessional and ill-suited to the primary demand of a chat-show - letting the interviewee talk.
From the moment that Price makes his entrance, he dominates this ten minute interview, having Aspel in the palm of his hand and the audience on the edges of their seats; Price certainly saw Aspel's deficiencies as an interviewer and plays upon this constantly, whether it's with a raised eyebrow or pithy put-down (at one point, Price brings up the subject of mistaken identity, to which Aspels remarks that his show is mistaken for a BBC one, and Price counters that with "I thought it was, that's why I came on it...")
Despite Aspel's journalist fumblings, Price manages to be effortlessly charming and rattles off a number of fascinating and highly amusing anecdotes, including his experiences of working with Errol Flynn and unwittingly being the star of a "pornographic" film in Spain (the film was Jeremy Summers' House of 1000 Dolls, which had adult inserts for export, much like Witchfinder General).
The subject of Price's appearance on Michael Jackson's Thriller album is mentioned and Price half-jokingly moans about not getting a piece of the action from such a staggeringly successful album ( "it gets me right there!", quips Price, pointing to his back pocket); the interview is rounded off with Price looking at Aspel "I have been watching you like a hawk the whole time, waiting for you to ask an intelligent question..." - says it all, really.
Alternate Scenes From the Export Version: As was often the case with British films shot around this period, there would be certain scenes where alternate “continental” versions would be filmed and used to spice the films up for less buttoned-up markets around the world (mainly in Europe); this would essentially involve one or more supporting actresses being chucked a few extra quid to get their tits out for the camera (Michael Armstrong, who appears on the audio commentary, went on to write Eskimo Nell, which satirised this practice). Even though the end results were somewhat crass, the performances and the scenes in general were usually almost identical, it made a film more sellable in places around the world that appreciated the female form and where censors were less likely to reach for the scissors.
Stills Gallery: Presented in HD, we get and extensive collection of publicity images from the movie, with surprisingly few of them featuring Price, which might have you reading something into that, especially as the first photo is one of his demise at the end of the movie. The rest are largely of the torture, witchcraft trials and sex scene(s) in order to drum up interest in the trickier markets. Also for your delectation are the US lobby-cards, under the eye-rolling guise of The Conqueror Worm, which come with the deeply generic and crap tagline “Leave the children at home… and if you are squeamish, stay home with them!“ Yes, well. Even with a terrific selection of images, best of all is a decent look at the entire UK press-book, with the HD resolution enabling you to read every single word. The biographies were written before Psychomania was a part of Nicky Henson’s body of work, and we're sure he’d love it to stay just how it was at the time of Witchfinder General…
Theatrical Trailer: Coming as fairly typical of its era, the preview didn't really let potential ticket-buyers know what they were in for and might have lost some revenue as a result. Sure, it mentions the brutality inherent during the events of the time, but not to the degree that caused the movie to become notorious. We mentioned it in one of the reviews elsewhere in the Tigon set, but the late 60s & early 70s were a period trying to shake of cinematic conventions, and one that was expected of most films was a sappy subplot to appeal to the lowest common denominator, much like a crap comedian in a large fur coat in music hall. Such a device in Witchfinder General is used to advance the plot and defies its loathsome pedigree, but it is somewhat oversold on the trailer. Maybe they were being clever by trying to get all comers in, with the inclusion of Wilfred Bramble's single shot appearance trying to convince that comedy plays a strong part in the proceedings bolstering the theory, but who knows?
Blood Beast - The films of Michael Reeves: In actuality, this is the enlightening episode of Andy Starke & Pete Tomb's sterling show Eurotika, and is an excellent look at the short career of the cinema's most unrealised - but we stress NOT unproven - directors. Gathered together are an assortment of those who knew him well enough to know that there was more stuff to come, if tragedy hadn’t struck.
This is as comprehensive a look as you will get outside the printed medium, with contributions from Ian Ogilvy, Tony Tenser, Producer Patrick Curtis, Paul ( Police Academy) Maslansky & Hilary Dwyer. Unlike the previous release of this documentary, we are pleased to report that it is presented in its intact Eurotika form, complete with groovy theme and freaky title sequence.
The toothy Curtis comes across very well, rattling off interesting stories from the production of Revenge of the Blood Beast, with his impressive/worrying collection of handguns framed on the wall behind him. We’ve always had a bit of problem with Paul Maslansky in the past, stemming from when he was interviewed by a UK newspaper on the release of Police Academy 6, where he came across as embarrassed and almost ungrateful by the success of the series, one which made him a hell of a lot of money. He was the one who kept cranking out the sequels, so if he felt it impugned his artistic sensibilities, then he should have either pulled the plug or kept quiet. Rant over.
Here Maslansky is perfectly charming, keeping a wistful tone as he goes into detail about having Reeves as both an underling and a director, with the sometimes irritating habits which the producer had to endure. The same goes for Tigon supremo Tony Tenser, who must have been caught on a good day, as he seems more agreeable and less the miserly skinflint the usually comes across.
Best of all is long-time associate and star of most of Reeves’ projects, Ian Ogilvy, on terrific form as he sits by a pool whilst effortlessly rolling off entertaining yarns of times past, including the famous tale of Price being rebuked by Reeves with his quip “…two good ones” when asked how many movies the director had made compared to the veteran actors’ extensive filmography. Sure, you have read/heard it before, but the old anecdote is ingeniously given a fresh spin when inter-cut between the recollections of Tenser and Ogilvy.
Brought up are interesting similarities between Reeves and Peter Jackson, both of whom were intensely passionate about movies, making their own from an early age with a Bolex camera, but it was a cruel twist of fate rather than the tea-trolley/wheelchair choices of steady-cam which lead to a divergence in their careers.
We always loved watching the Eurotika, the theme being a beacon of coolness in an ocean of crap TV, and to have the untampered Michael Reeves episode tied into something as apt as Witchfinder General is as fitting an arena as you are likely to find. Here’s hoping it inspires those who stumble onto it seek out more of both Reeves and Eurotika!
Bloody Crimes - Witchcraft: Presented by TV’s The History Man, Bryan McNerney is your guide for this accessible look at how the practise of witchcraft was literally demonised and manipulated for both personal and political gain across this green and unpleasant land.
“White” witchcraft was commonly practised all over the country, being a way of grouping together all manner of superstitious customs and behaviour which was characteristic of an era where science wasn’t around to explain just why things happened as they did. To look at it today, a lot of it could be linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, believing that bad things would happen should a ritual not being completed. This was all very well and good, until the publication of the Malleous Maleficarum, an infamous 15th century book written by Friars which inexorably linked the spell-casting of witchcraft to devil-worship, paving the way for the persecution of anyone who fell into either camp. For a modern parallel, just substitute “witchcraft” for “Communism” and Matthew Hopkins for Joseph McCarthy.
From then on, it was open season for anyone who didn’t conform, looked different, suffered mental illness, was born deformed, or just if you held a smouldering grudge against someone you wanted dead - it look no proof at all to get them fatally tried. One particularly loathsome instance covered here is the Maidstone Trials of 1652 In modern times, where six women were strung up through deeply dodgy prosecution tricks to reinforce the stance taken. These days, to find woman having convulsive fits, projectile vomiting and general witch-like behaviour is nothing new in Maidstone, as you’d be able to find it every Saturday night at the Lockmeadow complex.
The definite links to political corruption are examined, as is the constant bedfellow of religious fanaticism, which carefully manipulating ignorance and fear, but there are many who would say that this is the basis of most religions anyway. We are also treated to some background information on Matthew Hopkins, helping to enrich your viewing of Witchfinder General, even though some is at odds with what ended up in the film. After starting out with easy targets, Hopkins moved to Suffolk where he set his sights much higher, including the odd priest who stood in his way, making both a great trophy and advertisement for Hopkins’ power.
McNerney is an enthusiastic host, with a light touch and a welcome streak of humour, and makes what is too easily a series of dry facts something which engages the interest. It’s a welcome set of Cliff Notes to one of the darkest era in the history of the British Isles, one which shouldn’t be conveniently forgotten.
Intrusion: One of the most surprising and delightful additions to this disc is to be found in this achingly rare short film by Michael Reeves. Made in the early sixties, it tells the simple tale of a comfy, affluent home invaded by malicious thug who proceeds to wreak havoc upon the mistress of the house. Will the hero get back in time to stop the intruding force who has already attacked the butler (Ian Ogilvy) and has his lusty eyes on the soft flesh of woman? Things are guaranteed to get rough…
It shows genuine style, and someone with knowledge of what they wanted, even when hamstrung by the limitations of funds and equipment. This is an important stepping-stone to Reeves’ feature-films, featuring many of those who worked both behind and in front of the camera when he turned pro. The dedication to Goddard at the front of the movie informs all of where the style of the piece took its’ influence from, avoiding merely aping the work of the esteemed French director in favour of being inspired by him.
While there are numerous elements which could have been sharper in their execution, there is an energy which is infections and hard to deny, managing to take the edge off any shortcomings. The fight at the end is particularly impressive, with a dynamism which rivals the Connery/Shaw punch-up in From Russia with Love, and to get comparable results on a micro-budget is the mark of a promising director. It’s a prefect barometer of the cinematic times, where the French New-Wave was making itself felt around the world, inspiring others to break with the studio-bound system and shoot things “real”. An excellent addition.
Intrusion Commentary: The dynamic paring of Benjamin Halligan and Michael Armstrong discuss the rare short film presented, here, so obscure that - as Halligan points out - it survives because a friend of Reeves’ took it as a memento when he died. Both pick apart the both the monetary limitations and the problems resulting from Reeves’ inexperience behind the camera, specifically some rather awkward, clunky compositions of shots, not to mention the general confusion in its visual storytelling. Both enjoy watching it, agreeing that with the tragic directors’ all-too-brief CV, any chance to see other work is one to be grateful for. The names of other shorts made in the same era are rattled off, with at least one confirmed to be lost to the ravages of time, whetting the appetite before whipping the plate away just as quickly.
Alternate Opening and Closing Credits: Matthew Hopkins: Conqueror Worm. Sure, the reading of the poem is dynamite stuff, very pleasantly bringing to mind his work on Tim Burton’s Vincent, but we just have a serious problem with the way the movie was buggered about with in order to get AIP interested in taking it on. Oh, and the titles appear in a rather less interesting shade of orange/red colour rather than their usual yellow. Presented to you in HD, the reading of the Poe(m) brought to mind a quote from the legendary Wolfman Jack: “Ah, Radio. Radio is the music -the real music - of the spheres…” Yes, that IS how our though-processes work.
There really isn't much left to say on the movie. This tale of the corruption and the abuse of power in the name of both greed and religion is required viewing. If you haven't seen it then this Blu-Ray edition of what could be regarded as the finest film that Tigon and AIP ever produced is certainly the best way to experience Witchfinder General for the first time.
We have become very fond of Odeon’s output, owning possibly the most eclectic catalogue in the UK, ranging from gorgeously remastered movies like Come Play With Me and Blood on Satan’s Claw to the brilliant Stranger on the Third Floor. Now they have firmly moved into the Blu-ray arena with the magnificent image and extras sported by Witchfinder General, they deserve your money to keep them putting out an unmatched range of diverse of films with the quality to match. Excellent stuff.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 30th May 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Blood Beast - The Films of Michael Reeves, Bloody Crimes - Witchcraft, Vincent Price on Aspel & Company, Intrusion, Alternate Scenes, Alternate Opening and End Credits, Stills Gallery, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michael Reeves
Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Nicky Henson
Length: 87 minutes
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