Witchfinder General (1968)

When it’s on: Friday, 30 October (12.35 am, Saturday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

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: ****

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

One day, off sick from work and feeling sorry for myself, I scanned through the hinterland of the Sky Movies database to find some B-rated schlocker that I’d never normally watch. Sure enough, I ended up with the 1999 remake of The House on Haunted Hill, a title I’d avoided like the plague previously thanks to my memories of Jan de Bont’s reimagined and frankly bloody awful The Haunting. This one was much better, mainly because it was clearly such demented fun that didn’t even try to make sense, also the source material wasn’t as strong and certainly not as enduring as Wise’s original trip to the house where they walk alone. The reason I mention it here is down to Geoffrey Rush’s lead turn, taking on the role occupied by Vincent Price in the 1959 classic. Rush is made to essentially channel Price. His character’s name is Stephen Price, and he even wears the great man’s signature thin moustache. It’s a lovely touch, a bit of homage that the following film rarely bothers with thereafter, but as accomplished a performer as Rush is, the one thing he shows in The House on Haunted Hill is that there was, and only ever could be, one Vincent Price.

That isn’t always a good thing, incidentally. Whilst any fan of classic horror has some love for the man my dad used to refer to as Mad Vince, his willingness to take pretty much any part meant that he appeared in some total rubbish. His tendency to ham it up on order meant that he was never taken as seriously as he might have been, leaving a sliver of subtle turns that hinted at some genuine lasting talent – I really like his playing of The Last Man on Earth, also the slow menace and evil he oozes in The Witchfinder General. There are many other good roles, incidentally, certainly from the period before he moved almost exclusively into horror acting, and I love that one of his last parts was the small but cherished work he did for Edward Scissorhands, a few years before he died and easing some emotional resonance from his few precious minutes on the screen.

One director who knew exactly how to use Price to glorious effect was Roger Corman. Together, the pair made a string of low budget films inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe in the early 1960s, of which The Masque of the Red Death is probably my favourite. The films worked, despite their slender outlays, because of decent production values and the fun of watching Price in full throttle, also the prestige of attaching the name of a pre-eminent American writer. Like all Corman’s other Poe adaptations, The Masque of the Red Death really used the source as a jumping off point, and there’s little surprise given the story is really very short (I read it as part of my research for this piece, and it didn’t take long). The aim was to make it straight after House of Usher, but instead the project dragged due to problems in producing a good script. Regular Twilight Zone writer, Charles Beaumont, turned in a draft that pleased Corman but he was too ill to travel to Britain and work on it, and indeed Beaumont passed away several years later at the tragically young age of 38. Robert Wright Campbell, who had been nominated for a writing Oscar in 1957, completed it, borrowing elements and characters from other Poe stories to beef up the screenplay. All the same, Corman remained concerned about the script, trying to avoid similarities with Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in the film’s representation of Death. It was filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, which ensured it received tax benefits and could consequently increase both the budget and the shooting time. Whereas a normal Corman Poe adaptation could afford three weeks to complete filming, here they were able to expand to five.

Poe’s short story was more a meditation on plague and how the different classes were affected by it than one designed to scare his readers, and the resulting film turns out to be a similarly sombre and thoughtful piece of work. Certainly, it’s largely faithful to the text, retaining all Poe’s broad brushstrokes along with the seven different coloured rooms in Prince Prospero’s castle that have an enigmatic meaning but serve to unsettle his guests. The film expands Prospero (Price) into an outright worshipper of Satan. The last of the seven rooms is black, closely guarded, and the centre of his exhortations to the Devil. Alongside him is Juliana (Hazel Court), his paramour with similar interests in the occult. Prospero is the ruler of the locale, somewhere in medieval Italy. He treats the peasants appallingly, burning their village when he discovers that the Red Death – a plague, possibly a reference to the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century, and here is visually represented with sufferers sweating their own blood before dying – has hit. Before this, though, he makes off with Francesca (Jane Asher), a young woman to whom he’s taken a fancy, as well as capturing her father and lover for his own sport.

Prospero’s plan is to remain during the Red Death in his castle, safe among his invited rich guests and shutting the plague outside. The devil worship and cruelty continue, and Juliana escalates her own commitments to Satan once she finds he favours the younger Francesca. Like the prince, the castle’s guests are an equally horrible lot, spoiled and greedy. They’re headed by Patrick Magee’s Alfredo, a sadist who takes pleasure in inflicting pain on others. Prospero has little but contempt for any of them. He believes he’s secure in his worship, that God has been defeated by Satan in a world where death is occurring on a massive scale. In the meantime, death wanders the land in the shape of a strange figure, solemnly spoken (I want to believe it’s Christopher Lee, but he isn’t credited) and hooded and cloaked entirely in red. Before the end, death will visit Prospero’s castle in dealing out judgement with an even hand…

Whilst Prospero’s allegiance to Lucifer is a nice plot device, it only really serves to heighten the character’s latent evil and add poetry to his comeuppance. The element of Satanism is represented metaphorically, particularly in scenes involving Juliana’s conversion, shown in a famous dream sequence where she is sacrificed by priests from various world religions. Court’s smashing in the role, ravishing and revelling in her whirlwind of mature sexuality, and the dream scenes are masterly stuff that were too much for the censors at the time (they are of course impossibly tame by today’s standards, the censors riled either by the waving knives or the fact Court is obviously naked beneath her gown). She utterly overshadows Asher, who comes across as rather callow in comparison, as a representation of good and innocence. It’s this quality that Prospero resolves to corrupt, and Price is excellent value, ever sinister and full of patrician confidence until he realises, at the film’s end, how his entire world has been built on folly.

Like the other Corman ‘Poes’ The Masque of the Red Death was filmed in colour, and the use of it is sensational, especially in the seven coloured rooms, all very striking. The cinematography was the work of none other than Nicolas Roeg, on his way to becoming an acclaimed film director in his own right and here adding to the film’s stylised look, creating the world of the film as a dark fairy tale. Best of all is the climactic masquerade, in which the guests cavort happily until the figure of death arrives and transforms the room into a haunting and surreal dance of the dying. It’s very effective and chilling, though the film’s overall tone is melancholic and belonging to a fable rather than made for shocks. It’s perhaps this quality that made it less of a hit with audiences than previous entries, though many critics loved its intelligent script and artful representations of the diabolical.

The Masque of the Red Death: ****