None of this has adversely impacted the film's steadily growing reputation, or that of its troubled, tragic director and co-writer, Michael Reeves, who died of a drug overdose a few months after Witchfinder General was released. He was just 25 years old.
In 1645, during the English Civil War, Cromwellian cavalry cornet Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is granted two-days leave after saving the life of his superior officer. He visits papist priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies) and his niece, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer, aka Hilary Heath), whom Richard loves. Lowes is eager to see the couple married and for Richard to take Sarah away from the lawlessness of East Anglia.
Meanwhile, lawyer Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) is a self-declared, supposedly court-appointed witchfinder, roaming East Anglia with his sadistic partner, John Stearne (Robert Russell), torturing "confessions" out of alleged witches and devil-worshippers with the full support and financial backing of local authorities. After Richard returns to his regiment, Hopkins accuses Lowes of witchcraft while Sarah, trying to save her uncle's life, reluctantly agrees to become Hopkins' lover.
Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General (and yes, that's the onscreen title) is impressive on many levels: its historical verisimilitude, in spite of the low budget; Price's atypically restrained performance; the ambiguity of his character (as opposed to Stearne, a gleefully savage sadist); the still-disturbing scenes of casual sadism and torture, and the even more disturbing passiveness of authorities and bystanders who let Hopkins' heinous acts go unchallenged.
Thanks to obvious historical research and the good use of 17th century structures, the film maintains a high level of period authenticity, this despite the fact that things like TV antennas and other anachronisms are visible in a few shots, most notably electrical wires in the background of the first shot of Hopkins.
Supposedly, Price and Reeves nearly came to blows over how Hopkins should be played. Price had his own floridly theatrical style, one that had served him well and resisted the (reportedly) antisocial young whippersnapper's direction, though Price later admitted the director's instincts were right after all and came to regard the film and his performance as among the best he ever did. Almost revelatory, Price gives Hopkins the subtle ambiguity Reeves clearly was striving for. Though clearly a misogynist and willing to condemn people he knows to be innocent, Hopkins remains something of an enigma. What is his primary motivation? Money? Power? Is there any sincerity at all to his claims of "doing God's work" or is he by proxy condemning, perhaps unconsciously, his own sadistic urges?
Witchfinder General was The Wild Bunch of European horror films; though not a horror film per se, it (along with Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils, still MIA on DVD) begat a long line of artless and unspeakably violent imitators (The Bloody Judge, Mark of the Devil, etc.). The difference is that the violence here is dramatically justified, if no more pleasant to endure than in those films. Though it walks a fine line between an honest examination of violence as a kind of highly infectious disease (i.e., Hopkins becomes the very thing he so sanctimoniously condemns, rather like certain world leaders today) and distasteful exploitation, the picture ultimately falls squarely in the former category.
It's a film about how in a largely lawless society a handful of thugs are able to terrorize with implied government consent an entire region, how such actions will largely go unopposed by the masses. The scenes of torture aren't really all that graphic (and what blood is shown tends to be an unreal bright red, quite unlike real blood); rather, what's most disturbing is the fact that the townspeople watch the burnings and hangings and drownings and do nothing. The fact that we the audience know that none of these people are guilty of anything only adds to the tension.
The major DVD labels rarely credit the individuals responsible for the sometimes painstaking work they do, and it seemed like a good idea to go straight to the source and ask James Owsley, formerly of MGM's Technical Services and the man behind the restoration of Witchfinder General, for details:
Stuart Galbraith IV: What was the process getting the film from where it was in its last home video incarnation to its present DVD release?
James Owsley: I worked closely with the producer of the film, Philip Waddliove, to make sure that we would have a definitive version of what was Michael Reeves' original cut. There was the problem of multiple versions of the film that had to be sorted through. There was the British cut in which much of the violence had been edited, the U.S. version that had a different title and a Vincent Price voice-over during the main and end titles, and an international version that had some topless scenes. On top of that was the problem of the score which was replaced by Orion because of legal issues.
Galbraith: What exactly was the story with the replaced score?
Owsley: It was an odd situation. When AIP picked up the rights to this film, home video rights were not specified. When Orion took over the AIP library, they couldn't find the paperwork to clear the music for home video so they hired Kendell Schmidt to write a new score. I later found out that the documents that would have cleared the issue were lost in a fire in a London attorney's office back in the 1980s.
When I worked with the producer on this project, we went through a lot of legal documents and found that the original interpretation of the home video rights was a bit conservative, and although the definitive documents were lost we could secure the original score for home entertainment. Everyone involved wanted the original score, so it was not hard to close the deal.
Galbraith: I notice this release is unrated. Were there concerns that, had the film been resubmitted, you might have had a situation like the restored version of The Wild Bunch, which was threatened with an X-rating, despite the fact that no new scenes of violence had been added?
Owsley: I really don't know why MGM and Fox chose not to submit the new cut to the ratings board, as I was not involved in that decision.
Galbraith: What film elements did you source?
Owsley: We created a new I.P. [inter-positive] from the original negative that was in London to use as the main source of the transfer. However, the more violent scenes had been edited from the original negative. After consulting with the producer, we determined that Michael Reeves preferred that the violent scenes remain in the film, and in fact these were still in the U.S. version. So we used the I.P. of the U.S. version and the audio of the U.S. version to fill in the missing scenes.
We went back to the original title of the film as well as eliminated the Vincent Price voice-over as it was not what Reeves had planned to do with the film (although I admit I did like Price's vocal performance). Also, the topless scenes were not in Reeves' cut, but reshoots of original scenes. This topless footage was not in fact shot by Reeves and not part of the original script but added simply to spice up the film for some foreign markets. They were shot after production had wrapped for the day by a second unit. Again the producer and I agreed not to use them as they were not part of Reeves' vision.
I worked with MGM legal to re-clear the rights for the original score, and when I got the go ahead on that issue, we cleaned up the mono composite audio for the film with the original score using the "No-Noise" process. We transferred the film in Hi-Def and cleaned up all dirt and scratches.
Both the producer and I feel that the final transfer reflects all of the director's original intentions. Although, I am no longer at MGM (I'm at Sony now), I still keep in touch with the producer - quite a thoughtful person - and have been looking forward to this release.
Video & Audio
Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General is presented in a splendid 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer at 1.78:1, approximating its original 1.85:1 release. (By the end of the 1950s, AIP's non-'scope films were 1.85:1, though it's possible this was exhibited 1.66:1 in Europe.) The image is very strong, with excellent reds and greens, and impressively sharp, really bringing out John Coquillon's (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) impressive cinematography. The integration of U.S. and British versions is flawless and imperceptible. The Dolby Digital mono is clean and clear; optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available, and the dual-layered disc is closed-captioned.
Supplements include a full-frame, 25-minute featurette, Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic. On the plus the side, genre experts like Kim Newman walk viewers through Reeves' short but fascinating career and the production of Witchfinder General in detail, but the sluggishly edited show relies heavily on talking heads and long film clips from the movie. While MGM doesn't appear to hold rights to any of Reeves' earlier movies (such as The Sorcerers), we don't see so much as a single photograph or poster from any of those films and, worse, there are no clips from the Americanized Conqueror Worm, no excerpts from the replaced score, no nothing. MGM clearly owns that material, and since Price's prologue and epilogue weren't included as extras, they should have at least turned up in some form in the featurette.
Though the documentary bears a 2007 copyright, it plays as if none of the interviewees were even aware that the DVD would be restored. They talk about all the alterations, but no one says anything like, "Gee, isn't it great that the film has been restored!" Indeed, the entire packaging is badly botched. The fact that the film has been restored isn't mentioned anywhere on the box; as far as MGM is concerned, this is just another campy horror film. "There's lots of screaming when there's this much at stake!" is the alarmingly inapt cover art tag. A Criterion-like trumpeting of the film as a fully-restored director's version surely would reach a wider audience.
Making up for this, however, is a great audio commentary featuring co-producer Philip Waddilove and star Ian Ogilvy that's in the best tradition of the Anchor Bay Hammer releases.
Had Reeves not died so young and after such an abbreviated career might he have lived up to the promise on full display in Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General? It's really impossible to say, but even as his lone major work, the film remains a hugely influential piece of cinema that MGM's DVD at long last presents in its definitive version. A DVD Talk Collectors Series title.