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DVD SAVANT

Savant Region 2 Pal Review:

Matthew Hopkins:
Witchfinder General


Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General
Metrodome UK
1967(8) / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 83m. / PAL Region 0 / aka: The Conqueror Worm
Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, Wilfred Brambell
Cinematography John Coquillon
Film Editor Howard Lanning
Original Music Paul Ferris
Writing credits Tom Baker and Michael Reeves (with additional scenes by Louis M. Heyward) from a novel by Ronald Bassett
Produced by Tony Tenser, Louis M. Heyward, Arnold L. Miller, and Philip Waddilove
Directed by Michael Reeves

Reviewed by Jeff Swindoll

Which witch is which? :

Beginning in 1644 Matthew Hopkins made a very successful career of witch-hunting.  Some estimate that he managed to have 200-400 people executed for witchcraft.  In 1944 a director was born that would eventually make a movie based on the infamous witchfinder.  Neither of them would come to very good ends.  1  

 Michael Reeves was that director.  By all accounts he was poised to proceed with a successful film career, but his death on February 11, 1969 at age 24 (ruled a suicide by the coroner) brought those dreams to an end.  Reeves was from a poor family but when he came into some money he flew out to Hollywood to meet his idol, action director Don Siegel.  Legend has it that he went up to Siegel's door, rang the bell, and Siegel answered in his vest and jockey shorts.  Reeves responded, "I've come all the way from England to see you, Mr. Siegel, because you're the greatest director in the world."  Evidently, flattery will get you everywhere because Mr. Siegel put Reeves to work doing some minor work for him.  Later Reeves worked his way up to 2nd unit director on Castle of the Living Dead.  The next step was to direct his first film, Revenge of the Blood Beast aka The She Beast (US title), on the cheap.  Blood Beast's profits caused Reeves to come to the attention of producer Tony Tenser, who produced Reeves' next film The Sorcerers starring Boris Karloff (to be released on DVD in December by Metrodome).  The financial success of The Sorcerers led Tenser to bankroll (along with American-International Pictures) Reeves' next (and final) film, Witchfinder General.   

Synopsis:

Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell) roam the villages of an England torn by civil war, exploiting the fear and superstitions of the peasantry for monetary gain.  2  
He is summoned by suspicious villagers who accuse local priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies) of witchcraft.  Hopkins eventually comes to the conclusion that the priest is a witch, but first he blackmails sexual favors from Lowes' niece Sarah (Hilary Dwyer).   When her soldier fiancé, Richard (Ian Ogilvy) discovers what Hopkins has done, he pledges to track down the evil pair.  Richard's pursuit leads to a conclusion of death, disfigurement, and insanity.  

Michael Reeves originally wanted actor Donald Pleasence for the role of Hopkins.  However, AIP was partially bankrolling the picture and insisted on using their contract player, Vincent Price.  Reeves gave in to the casting but was never happy with having Price forced upon him and was not afraid to let the American actor know it.  When Price arrived in England to begin shooting, Reeves did not even meet him at the airport.  Perhaps it is that air of tension that fuels Price's dastardly performance.  The film has been described by some as an English Western; the theme of revenge is one that is definitely found in many westerns.   

The DVD:

The DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen and in some ways has never looked better.  The reds of Richard's uniform are very bold and the English countryside looks wonderful.  The picture does occasionally have some nicks and scrapes, but for a film of its age this is not too unexpected.  Two versions are encoded on the disc, a director's cut, and an export (or continental) version.  What is somewhat jarring is that in assembling the director's cut, the producers of this disc have had to gather a number of scenes from substandard sources.  This is stated in a title card before the version is played, but it is still rather jarring to see a very good DVD image suddenly switch to what looks like a grainy VHS.  The film was heavily censored (note: in the UK) and most of the VHS quality scenes are of a violent nature (though they seem tame by current standards).  The export version features an alternate scene with Stearne, a villager, and some topless bar wenches that is in good shape.  The same scene is in the director's cut, but the wenches are topped.  This export version also features the violent scenes in the same VHS quality.  I appreciate what the producers have done to make these scenes available and can understand why pristine elements were not available, but I might have liked it better if a third cut were offered that featured only the material of full DVD quality. 

This version also restores Paul Ferris' excellent score (replaced by a synthesizer score for US home video).  American prints also have Price reading Poe's poem, The Conqueror Worm over the opening and closing credits, to cash in on the popular Poe series.   I prefer the UK version of the opening where the hanging of the witch is carried out in eerie silence.  In the US version Price's voice doesn't seem to gibe with the grim proceedings taking place.   The US version also changed the title card to Matthew Hopkins: Conqueror Worm. This DVD restores the original UK title, Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General.    

The extras:

The DVD features some very nice supplemental features.  The main one is a 22-minute documentary entitled Blood Beast: the films of Michael Reeves made for British television in 1999.  It covers Reeves' short film career and features interviews with Tom Baker (WG co-screenwriter), Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Paul Maslansky (producer of Revenge of the Blood Beast), Patrick Curtis (producer of The Sorcerers), Tony Tenser (producer of WG and the Sorcerers), Patrick Waddilove (producer WG), and horror author Kim Newman.  It also has trailers for The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General (Sorcerers is supposed to be released in December 2001 by the same company).  Kim Newman also provides production notes.  The disc also has a music video by UK band Cathedral entitled Witchfinder General, which I found rather silly even if it does sport some rather buxom "witches."  Finally, there are filmographies, and an image gallery (underscored with music from the film) that contains photos, posters, and lobby cards from around the world.     

In conclusion:

I recommend the disc as a purchase for the Michael Reeves, Witchfinder General, or Vincent Price fan (those who are capable of PAL conversion, that is).   The inclusion of the censored scenes is welcome, but it's a shame that more pristine elements could not be located.  To my knowledge this disc was assembled without MGM's (who now owns the AIP films) participation, so if the elements exist in the Lion's vaults, they were not available to Metrodome.   

For more information on this DVD or the upcoming DVD of The Sorcerers visit The Redemption Online Store.  I bought my copy from Bensonworld, who, by the way, offer free worldwide shipping.   I've dealt with them before and have been impressed with their service.    

A Savant Review of a Region 1 Disc of Witchfinder General appears at This URL. (9.17.07)


Footnotes:

1.      There are several tales of how Hopkins came to his end.  The first is that he was himself accused of witchcraft, failed one of his own tests, and was hanged.  The second and perhaps more frightful one is that he died from tuberculosis.  One hopes that the first is true since Hopkins certainly did not deserve to die in his bed after murdering so many unfortunate souls.   
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2. It was a very lucrative business at the time.  In the 1600s the daily wage was as little as 2.5 pence.  Hopkins made 15 to 23 pounds for each village he cleansed of witches.   The pay was enough so that he could afford to dress fashionably and employ 2 assistants.
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Text © Copyright 2001 Jeff Swindoll
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson

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