Witchfinder General Review

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by Simon Crust Oct 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Witchfinder General Review

    1 An intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear.

    2 Intense dislike; abhorrence.

    The dictionary’s definition of horror. Why, then, would anyone find horror stimulating? Of course it’s not the horror, it’s the feeling of relief that we all crave, the bodies own calming endorphins, in much the same way an extreme theme park ride can make us feel, so too can a well executed horror film. During the recent flurry of horror reviews there is one common factor, all encompass the horror film motif, a ‘standard set of rules’, tried and tested, set out to induce fear, typically the supernatural ‘monster’ be that vampire, creature or alien. There is one type of horror, though, that above all others is the most repugnant; the horror of man’s inhumanity to man. I’m not talking about the teen slasher genre, rather the capacity for contempt that the human race can have for itself. What is more horrifying is when the actions depicted are fact and not fiction. Repugnance, abhorrence, intense dislike and fear these are just some of the feeling stirred up by tonight’s feature, ladies and gentlemen I give you Mathew Hopkins: Witchfinder General.

    Witchfinder General was the third and last film of Michael Reeves, his life was cut tragically short, robbing the cinema of a huge talent. His first film, She Beast, if you can track it down, is in terrible shape, almost completely black with a myriad of print damage. However, it does show an emerging talent, and is perhaps the forerunner of Witchfinder; it contains many of the same elements, but is played far too campy. His second, The Sorcerers, with Boris Karloff, is a far more serious affair, and the success of it lead directly to directing his final film. With it, gone were all traces of camp and excess, to be replaced with stark realism and horror. Opening in August 1968, it was wickedly received, causing a storm of protest about its cruelty on both sides of the ocean; this was a full year before Peckinpah would do the same with The Wild Bunch, itself hailed as ground breaking, containing cinematic violence that held the door open for some of the best excesses in the early seventies, pushing the censors to the limit, including his own Straw Dogs, The Devils and Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange all of 1971.

    Witchfinder General started life as book by Ronald Bassett, charting the life of the real life character Mathew Hopkins. Hopkins was a thoroughly disreputable fellow that exploited the fear and prejudice against witchcraft of the common folk of Suffolk and held a reign of terror that lasted from 1644 and 1646 during the Civil War that started in 1642. He and his cohort John Stern are responsible for the condemnations and executions of some 230 alleged witches in a fourteen month period, more than all the other ‘witch-hunters’ that proliferated during the 160-year peak of the country’s witchcraft hysteria. He appointed himself the ‘Witch-finder General’ and sporting an alleged special charge from Parliament held towns and villages to ransom for his services; some reports suggest amounts totalling £28, consider the average daily wage of 6 pence! No one was safe from Hopkins, even the clergy, the aged Minister John Lowes was tried/tortured to exact a confession and then hung in August 1645, though this proved to be his downfall and tide turned against him soon after; it is this period of Hopkins’ life that the film charts. With historical fact and a truly grim tail, the go ahead for Witchfinder General was given with the backing by AIP. Their backing proved to be both a blessing and a curse; yes there was more money than if it was a purely British production, but they insisted on their own leading man. Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance for the pivotal role of Hopkins, however AIP insisted upon their own contract player Vincent Price. Neither was happy about the arrangement, both feeling put upon, they were, however, stuck with each other. Reeves and Price never got on, they always had a stained relationship and it came to head at one stage with the much publicised confrontation in front of the crew with Price shouting “I have made over seventy pictures, what have you done?” To which Reeves replied “Three good ones”. Many point to this antagonistic relationship as the backbone of Price’s remarkable portrayal of Hopkins. He plays the character with a cold heart, ruthless in his pursuit and free from any of the ‘ham’ that he was so often associated with; it remains his best performance in any film and the nail with which to hold the picture together.

    Hold tight, I’m giving away major plot details.

    It is a cold and windswept landscape, the ominous tone of hammer is the only sound as the small band of townsfolk lead the condemned to the gallows; not a sound as the body falls, left there to wither and decay. In the distance a horse backed onlooker nods imperturbably, his work is done. That melancholy mood set, so begins Witchfinder General. Reeves sets up a marvellous tone within the first few minutes of the feature, by removing the sound we are left with only what we can see, the people and their ghastly act. For this is essentially the films premise, and once the act is performed we zero in on one man, aloof and set apart from the scene, there is no doubt it is at his instigation the hanging has taken place; in one swift movement we have premise and protagonist, watch Spielberg use the same trick when the first body is found in Jaws; Brodie, aghast, turns to look out to sea.

    After the opening credits we are introduced to Richard Marshall a brilliant Cromwellian soldier, respected and admired by is peers and ranking officers alike, played by Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy. Whilst on manoeuvres in Essex, their troop is set upon, thanks to Marshall disaster is diverted. It is the little details that can make a big difference, musket shots take their time in firing, the wounds they make are not the massive splatter that is so prevalent during modern cinema, but there are blood splatter marks around the bodies, such reality means so very much. Due to his recent good conduct and the proximity to his fiancée’s village, Marshall is given a days leave; he jumps at the chance and rides full pelt. Upon entering the village, things aren’t quite right; it’s too quiet for one. Upon entering the Church vestry Marshall meets with the Minister John Lowes (Rupert Davis), it is his adopted niece, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), that Marshall is betrothed. John warns him of great danger, he has been accused and the village has sent for the witchfinder, but Marshall assures him it is all superstitious nonsense. He spends the night with his beloved leaving in the morning again assuring them there is nothing to worry about. Once again Reeves manages to set the tone just right, after the horrors of the opening scene we are introduced to a dashing hero and a succinct family unit. The doting niece will do anything for her uncle, a man of God, and when together all is blissful and happy. In forming this close happy unit the horrors that are about to descend remain all the more shocking, all the more repugnant. Upon leaving the village Marshall happens upon two travellers and offers them directions, he did not know it, but he just had his first brush with Mathew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and John Stern (Robert Russell).

    Once at the village things turn towards the nasty. Hopkins and Stern take no time in rounding up the suspected witches, of whom John Lowes is one, imprison them and begin the process of extracting a confession. The methods the two use are reprehensible but authentic; pricking involves stabbing the victim with a sharp nail devise in an attempt to find an area non responsive to pain, on the supposition that the Devil will prevent pain to its servant, the so called ‘mark of the Devil’; and running, the victim is kept moving without rest, sleep or food, until they confess, both highly effective. Sarah, unable to stand her uncle being tortured grants Hopkins sexual favours, just to keep him alive. This does not bode well with Stern who wonders why the old man is being spared. Jealousy over coming Stern one night he follows Hopkins and finds out exactly what is happening. The following day Hopkins is called to a neighbouring village and Stern takes this opportunity to visit Sarah, he brutally rapes her. Upon his return Hopkins ‘discovers’ this and thinking Sarah was willing decides to break his promise and execute her uncle anyway. The two leave the town having done ‘Gods work’ and ride to the next; there is no shortage of work for them, leaving behind a ruined and devastated community and church. Fortune smiles on Marshall once again and he is able to visit his Sarah again. Upon entering the ruined village and hearing of the acts perpetrated by Hopkins and Stern he goes mad with grief and rage, swearing to God that he will rid the world of this murderer.

    One thing is abundantly clear with these scenes, Hopkins and Stern are not out to do ‘Gods work’, they are, in fact, out for themselves relying on the countries turmoil and superstitions to further their own agendas. Hopkins is a shrewd ‘businessman’ taking the profits of his work before all else, whereas Stern is a brutish thug that enjoys the pain and humiliation he visits upon his victims; together they are a formidable pair. Marshall, when he swears his vengeance becomes the very thing he wants to remove, he too is out for himself, swearing to God; we now have two sides of the same coin.

    Marshall is unable to stay the bloodlust at once though; he still has soldier duties to attend. So after packing Sarah off to Town he heads off to a meeting with Cromwell himself (Patrick Wymark), on the way stopping at an inn and brawling with Stern that happens to be in there. Stern manages to escape and warns Hopkins, who shows no fear. They are, after all, appointed by God and have Parliamentary dispensation for their work, he suggest implicating Marshall and Sarah as witches and thus they get to try them with the full backing of the law. The pair continue to Town and reprise their work, this time implementing the new method of swimming. This is authentically represented by dressing the victim in a billowing white over garment, tying the hands and feet together, then strapping a rope around their middle and ‘floating’ them off a bridge. The theory was witches reject the baptism of Christ by water and thus water will reject them, i.e. they float; the way the body was tied coupled with the billowing clothing often created air pockets so the victim invariably did float; no need for a verbal confession. Hopkins also implemented a new execution method, death by burning, a particularly vicious act.

    Upon the realisation that both Sarah and Hopkins are in the same town, Marshall heads off in pursuit defying his duties. Stern and Hopkins have found Sarah, Marshall rushes to the rescue only to be thwarted by Hopkins’ devious plan, they are both arrested for witchcraft and taken to the dungeon whereupon the torture begins. Sarah is stripped and pricked, Marshall bound to the wall. He does manage to free himself and takes bloody revenge with a poker to Stern, he then advances on Hopkins, axe in hand, with a frenzied attack but he is denied the death blow as his soldier peers arrive at the door and shoot Hopkins dead. As Marshall howls in crazed anguish, “You took him from me”, Sarah screams and screams as insanity overcomes her, the picture freeze fames on her face, the credits role.

    This is a bleak an ending to a film as I have seen since Craven’s first. Having been denied the revenge that so drove him, Marshall becomes as deranged as the poor Sarah, whose insanity is brought about by all that has happened. Even though the protagonist got his just desserts, no one comes away without scars, it is a chilling epitaph to the human condition. Unlike the rest of the film, this ending was pure fiction, and is all the better for it. The true fate of Hopkins is somewhat of a mystery, some say he was tried as a witch by his own swim method and executed, others say he died of old age in his home village; both of which would have made decent endings in their own right, but somehow the brutality of the one given seems to fit the brutality of the film and fits.

    The torture scenes, as already stated, are made all the more real by their authenticity. As such their horror is all the more disgusting. The three main scenes; torture of John Lowes, the swimming and the final scene, are shot so matter of factly, without the lingering or enjoyment of lesser exploitation films, one feels compelled to squirm. Later films of a similar genre ignore this and head straight for exploitation, I’m thinking of Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (1970) which drew much of its inspiration from Witchfinder, but with none of the class. The torture scenes remain jarring, even to this day, because the rest of the film is so beautifully shot. Never before, or (I’d hazard a guess) since has the English countryside looked so good, behind the skilful eye of John Coquillon, little wonder Peckinpah used him for Straw Dogs and again for his next few pictures, and when juxtaposing such tranquil and beautiful landscapes against horrific torture scenes in a dark, dank dungeon the effect is like a slap in the face. It has been stated that Reeves created an English western, with the horse riding amongst the rolling landscape governed by a revenge motif. Whilst I can see the parallels, I, personally, am not convinced of this argument, preferring to think of the film as an epic horror. I see the wide open landscapes a way of hammering home the confines of the torture scenes, to make them all the more shocking without having to relying on ‘shock’ tactics. Compare against the Hammer productions of the time with their studio bound productions and ever camp performances relying on ‘jump’ scares. Unfortunately all was not wonderful, I did take exception to the day for night shots, so common place in Hammer Horrors, it is such a shame that the budget didn’t stretch to real night shoots, would have improved things. However, this is personal taste, many don’t mind.

    The cast too are uniformly excellent, I have already sung the praises of Price’s outstanding performance, kudos must also go to Ogilvy, his portrayal of the dashing hero to lunatic is wonderfully realised. Robert Russell as Stern is the most reprehensible, he has no redeeming qualities, all tough and brutish towards the helpless and a cowering wimp when confronted, he is the school playground bully and there is satisfaction when he meets his end. Praise too to Hilary Dwyer, when we first see her she is eminently likable, and as we watch her journey to temptress to victim and finally madness she it totally believable, we actually care about her, how often can that be said about a heroin in the modern cinema. The bit parts are too are very enjoyable, Wymark, as Cromwell, though little to do still exudes presence, with his silky deep voice he is the General of the army, all pay attention to him.

    I have no qualms then of nominating Reeves’ Witchfinder General as a horror masterpiece. Thoroughly nasty, but beautifully shot, it manages to bring home the true horror of man cruelty to man, makes one think. A shame then that upon its initial release, we in the UK were denied the full impact by only seeing the watered down British version. For, you see, there were two versions made, one for Britain and one for Europe. The differences amount to about two minutes of footage, and all of it violent. Little cuts of a few seconds here and there from the torture scenes were removed to reduce their impact for us sensitive Brits while the rest of the world got to see the full viciousness. Both versions, however, were director approved as most knew that our repressive regime (still vestiges of it remain today) would not accept the full version, so it was reduced. Thanks to Metrodome we are now able to see these few seconds’ worth of footage restored into the ‘International version’. But this does cause a bit of a problem, because all the restored footage comes from inferior quality recordings and therefore stands out like a sore thumb. The print is so bad it looks to have come from a fifth generation VHS copy then spliced into the theatrical cut; it is that bad. It is a travesty that we should have to suffer in this way, not slighting the excellent work of Metrodome here, rather the establishment that caused it in the first place, especially when you see the excised material, which is hardly worth removing, with the exception of the burning scene, and, I think, adds little to the impact anyway!

    The Witchfinder General then is one of the greatest British horror films of all time along with The Wicker Man (1973) and mark a time when horror truly was horrifying. Mans inhumanity to man, is there anything more horrific?

    The Rundown

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