When it’s on: Friday, 30 October (12.35 am, Saturday)
There’s an argument that none of the films I’ve chosen to cover during Halloween week are in fact part of the horror genre. They’re all offbeat in some way, and today’s entry, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, from 1968, is as much a slice of historical fiction as it is horror. There really was a Matthew Hopkins, who roamed East Anglia and Suffolk during the English Civil War era, rooting out and executing hundreds of women convicted for witchcraft and being paid for every one. Legend has it he was responsible for 300 deaths, all carried out legally and by parliamentary mandate, and since his death in 1647 his reputation as a bogeyman has grown and grown.
All of which said, Witchfinder General is definitely a horror movie, even with its absence of supernatural thrills. Hopkins is portrayed at his worst – an opportunist taking advantage of Britain’s lawlessness during a time of turmoil to move from town to town, killing people for profit. That none of the victims are actually witches is incidental; they’re tortured to the point of confessing, at which stage they’re killed in increasingly gruesome ways, from being hanged to tied up and lowered onto fires. Hopkins then receives guineas for his services and goes on to the next village with accusations to make. At times like these, life is cheap and death a spectator sport. One particularly nasty moment finds a crowd gathered to watch impassively as a ‘witch’ is incinerated, and then children bake potatoes in the fire that contains her burning ashes.
Hopkins is played by Vincent Price, far from Reeves’s choice as the last thing required was a hammy, florid performer; rather he wanted an actor capable of more subtle, reptilian evil and had Donald Pleasance in mind. However, American International Productions, which put up much of the film’s slim £83,000 budget, forced their star name onto the project, seeing it as a continuation of Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from earlier in the decade, indeed Witchfinder General was marketed in this vein once it hit the United States, retitled The Conqueror Worm, which linked it directly to a poem by Poe of the same name. Price and Reeves didn’t get along. When Price arrived on the set, he was informed that ‘I didn’t want you and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you.’ Struggling to cope with the director’s expectations of him, at one stage the actor snapped and pulled rank, stating he’d made 87 films and what had the 24 year old director done? ‘I’ve made three good ones,’ came the retort, which ended the argument. Despite the pair’s mutual and ongoing irritation, Reeves coaxed a brilliant performance from Price, drilling back all his excesses to portray Hopkins as an enigmatic and businesslike man, publicly appearing to believe in his own self-appointed mission while mired in spiralling levels of corruption and cynicism.
In the story, Hopkins makes a mistake when he executes the priest father of Sara (Hilary Dwyer), the fiancé to a young Roundhead officer, Richard (Ian Ogilvy). Sara’s attempts to save her dad (Rupert Davies), which extend to offering sexual favours to Hopkins, come to naught. He’s tortured and killed. A distraught and betrayed Sara finds solace in Richard, who marries her and then goes after both Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Robert Russell). The latter is a more earthly fellow than his boss, and a nasty piece of work, spending his time in local taverns with whores when not torturing poor innocents. Ultimately, Hopkins realises the only way to rid himself of Richard is to implicate him as a witch and subject Sara to more agony in extracting his confession.
Even in its censored form, Witchfinder General makes for strong viewing. My DVD (as part of the coffin-shaped Tigon Collection box set – nice!) comes in two versions, both the original and the extended ‘export cut’. which reinserts some of the grislier scenes excised from the UK censored edit. Whichever version is screened on television (more likely the censored one, as the additional footage is noticeably inferior), the genius of the film in juxtaposing Hopkins’s terrible acts with the beauty of the English countryside is clear. Often, Reeves filmed in locations reputed to be the same as where the actual deeds took place, whereas the moments in which Ogilvy is seen riding at breakneck speed to catch up with Hopkins take on an almost epic quality, only the film’s tiny budget dulling the effect. Ogilvy, incidentally, was a childhood friend of Reeves, and put in a great performance as his character’s world is turned upside down, leaving him a maddened emotional wreck. By the film’s close, he is howling incoherently in frustration and rage, leaving serious doubts over whether he will ever recover mentally.
It’s a great piece of work, one that threatened briefly to transform Reeves into a major league film director before he died the following year from a prescriptions drugs overdose, most likely an accidental one. The film’s reputation has only increased over time. Credited with marking a short-lived revival in the British horror industry, it certainly took an unusual subject and made good use of it. It’s perceived to have sparked a cult of ‘folk horror’, films set in pastoral England and punctuate horrific subjects against a backdrop of largely innocent and idyllic rural life, corrupting it in the process. This found its best expression in Blood on Satan’s Claw, released three years later and an absolutely lurid gem of a picture, but the style continues to this day. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, released in 2013, owes it an enormous debt.
Witchfinder General: ****