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Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General at first seems yet another off-putting essay in gratuitous violence. It begins with the brutal hanging of a screaming woman already underway, and ends with an unresolved scene of torture and butchery. But Michael Reeves' film is a bona fide horror classic, an historical drama with a lot to say about political realities. Its black-hearted true-life villain Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed witchfinder of the title, offers star Vincent Price one of his most interesting characterizations. Released at the outset of the ratings system that allowed more honest depictions of violent cruelty, Witchfinder was controversial from the beginning.
Witchfinder General takes place in the beautiful English countryside during a civil war. The unprincipled Matthew Hopkins uses this confusion to ply his trade, playing to the ignorant and superstitious. As in a modern Terror state, an accusation presumes guilt. Hopkins' cruel games include allowing the eager John Stearne to use a metal pick to probe for "The Devil's Spot", a place that can be stabbed without the 'witch' feeling pain.
Physical torture is only one facet of the Witchfinder's calculated inhumanity. Hopkins' tyranny is based on an intimidating manner and a willingness to use brute force. His cynicism and hypocrisy are out in the open: both persecutor and victim are well aware that the witch-hunting business is an obscene farce. One doesn't have to be a political prisoner to understand the mechanism in play. How many of us have been dealt a dirty deal by someone in a position of authority, who justifies his actions with the words, "I'm doing this for your own good"? 1
Witchfinder General is a violent movie, but nothing in it is exaggerated. War in the 1600s was a nasty, bloody business that left ordinary country folk hungry and desperate. Denouncing a neighbor had the immediate benefit of claiming the property he left behind. Local fools do Hopkins' bidding, even when he asks that the daughters of the men he imprisons be brought to his bedchamber. Hopkins' wicked charade increases his popularity in Royalist circles. He takes his technique one step further, burning his victims instead of hanging them.
Matthew Hopkins demonizes the defenseless and those who oppose him, channeling public hysteria for his personal gain. Reeves refuses to place the film's violence in an escapist, "Feel Good" context, forcing a comparison with modern political realities. 'Righteous' torture is now part of the political landscape. At least one popular current television show preaches that torture is desirable. At one point Stearne asks Matthew if he enjoys torture, and the Witchfinder declines to respond. He's like a modern political appointee, refusing to be unaccountable to anyone.
Michael Reeves made only a few movies and Witchfinder General is the only one that can be called a full success. His subject matter and visual choices are way above most of the A.I.P. horror offerings of the time. The director achieves a great deal with limited resources, finding workarounds for scenes he can't afford to stage -- a battle, a formal wedding. His camera blocking is very self-assured.
Detractors of Reeves have noted his lifestyle and his reported unkind treatment of his star Vincent Price during filming. If what counts is what ends up on the screen, Reeves is definitely one of Price's best directors. The actor's theatrical style is disturbing in parts of The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia. In Witchfinder we keep looking for signs of humanity or weakness, and find none. Dropping most of his familiar mannerisms, Price makes Hopkins into an oppressive monster.
Witchfinder General has been overly praised in some quarters, especially by English critics. It's not a statement about violence but an examination of bigotry, opportunism and the evil that men do. By the time of the finale in the torture dungeon, with Stearne using his Devil's Pick on Sarah, Witchfinder has built up an intolerable tension. Chained to a wall, Richard Marshall can only lift himself off the floor and howl in anguish. The horror is not that violence has made Richard into Hopkins' equal, but that rage has erased the soldier's feelings for his bride. Sarah screams in mad terror, but Richard no longer seems aware of her.
Repeated viewings of the last scene show that it is not an endless torment; it only seems so because of the film's accumulated tension. Hopkins and Stearne are rather quickly overcome and Richard's axe blows no longer appear to go on forever. We don't even see exactly what happens to Stearne. But on a first viewing, Reeves leaves us up in the air with our nerves jangling.
The tortured distribution history of Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General has finally led to a proper video version. American-International's original release disguised it as part of their Vincent Price - Edgar Allan Poe series, re-titled The Conqueror Worm. The film suffered a further indignity in the 1980s when Orion Home Video's lawyers could not locate the music clearances for a number of A.I.P. acquisitions. Replacement synthesizer scores were imposed on this film and several others, including Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. Film fans became aware of these futzed soundtracks through Tim Lucas's magazine columns. When MGM acquired the Orion library, dedicated individuals brought the music problem to the attention of personnel charged with the maintaining MGM's film holdings.
With Philip Waddilove's guidance, MGM film restorer James Owsley was able to reconstruct Michael Reeves' preferred cut. The version on this new disc contains a pristine enhanced HD transfer from the original English negative, retaining the more violent material from the uncensored American version. Left out are the 'Conqueror Worm' titles, Vincent Price's bookended Poe narrations and the topless barmaid scenes added to spice up the American cut. Most importantly, the Paul Ferris orchestral score has been fully restored.
MGM/Fox's enhanced transfer of Witchfinder General looks marvelous. Its colors are sharp and the image is very clean. The optical dissolves are no longer murky and the bright reds don't smear as they did on the old laserdisc.
The package copy inanely persists in attributing the film's story to Edgar Allan Poe. MGM also did not see fit to include the trimmed alternate version scenes, even though they would seem a perfect extra. A new featurette is built around interviews with three English genre critics. Kim Newman observes that modern English filmmakers ignore their countryside and instead stick to the same boring London landmarks. But do Reeves' vistas of green pastureland make him the UK equivalent of an American director of westerns?
A welcome feature commentary allows producer Philip Waddilove to tell the full story of the filming; he reasons that he was given producing credit because he put his own money into the show. The personable Ian Ogilvy matches Waddilove's recall of pertinent facts and contributes his own memories of being a swashbuckling movie star. Steve Haberman contributes good information as well. The word 'genius' is heard, but Michael Reeves' film career didn't get far enough along for such judgments.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Witchfinder General rates:
1. Terence Fisher's great horror film The Stranglers of Bombay addresses the same issue in colonial terms. When asked his opinion about the East India Trading Company, a cultured Indian replies that what he thinks doesn't matter: "He who has the power decides the truth."
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