Saturday, 6 October 2012

Witchfinder General (1968)

Next up on the late show is Witchfinder General, a British horror film from the late 60s starring the king of camp and macabre Mr Vincent Price. It's a period piece set in the mid 17th century at the time of the English Civil War. If you know your history then you'll realise we're talking Roundheads vs Cavaliers, Oliver Cromwell vs Charles II, and a total breakdown of society in general. All this provides a pretty grim backdrop to a sinister tale of greed, corruption and sadistic witch hunts.
Vincent Price plays lawyer Matthew Hopkins, the self proclaimed Witchfinder General who stalks East Anglia torturing suspected witches into confessing their heresy and evil ways under the banner of God's work. Bringing the muscle is his sidekick John Stearne, a bruiser with an appetite for beer, wenches and inflicting pain on the innocent. And it is mostly the innocent who pay the price as Hopkins and Stearne take advantage of the vacuum of law and order, reaping the financial benefits on offer for ridding villages of their local witches.
Fighting the good fight is brave Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall. After saving his the life of his commanding officer, Marshall is given a few days leave to visit his sweetheart Sara and her priest uncle John Lowes. But hot on Sara and Lowes' trail are Hopkins and Stearne, hoping to prove that the priest has the Devil's Mark on him and hoping to convict him of witchcraft.
If what's been described so far doesn't sound particularly scary then think again. Witchfinder General deals in a very perverse brand of horror, and although we're talking mainly tomato ketchup, there's a fair deal of gore. The accused witches are mostly tortured with what look like long knitting needles in order to discover The Devil's Mark. The trick is if the needles find an area of the body that produces no screams then the victim must be a witch and should be hung or burnt at the stake (a particularly nasty scene). Another way of seeking out the witchery is to lower the accused into the nearest river. Those that float are witches and must be executed. Those that drown... well let's just say it's a no-win situation if you fall under Matthew Hopkins' suspicion.
In his greed, corruption and merciless nature Hopkins is the personification of pure evil and Vincent Price revels in a role tailor-made for him. With a haircut and facial furniture not too dissimilar to Deep Purple keyboard player John Lord, Price hams up the sinister vibes to great affect. His glee at murdering blameless victims is priceless. "She was innocent" he murmurs with a sickly smile and a raise of the eyebrow as an accused witch is dredged dead from the river. It's classic Vincent Price.
The support cast is a who's who of late 60s minor British character actors. Robert Russell is memorable as vile and repulsive henchman John Stearne. Ian Ogilvy (he of The Return of The Saint fame) does a good turn as the clean cut hero Marshall. 1964 Pipe Smoker of the Year winner Rupert Davies groans and bleeds a lot as accused priest Lowes. And gravel voiced Patrick Wymark (top spy in Where Eagles Dare) makes a blink and you'll miss it cameo as Oliver Cromwell.
Sharing equal billing with Price and the C-list of character actors is the English countryside, beautifully shot by director Michael Reeves. Reeves shows much reverence for his locations and pastoral Britain has rarely looked better. There are tracking shots aplenty as the camera follows Marshall on horseback, galloping through fields and meadows in search of revenge to the rousing theme tune. In fact Reeves' Britain in the 17th century is something akin to the Wild West with Hopkins as the classic "villain in black". In the absence of a just and fair legal system, death is lurking at the end of every hedgerow. And for the barren deserts and ghost towns of the mid-west, read the bucolic pastures of Brandeston, Suffolk.
Witchfinder General is most definitely a horror film though. For one thing it has one of the largest and loudest scream counts of any horror film ever made. In fact the film fades to sepia on a piercing and bloodcurdling scream, which echoes over the gentle theme tune providing a very bitter aftertaste to the final reel. Witchfinder General met with howls of disapproval on release. Even though many of the more violent scenes were cut by the censors, it seems the sadistic nature of the film was too much for the critics and public of 1968. Sadly Reeves took his own life at the age of 25 not long after Witchfinder General was released. It was only his third feature film. Today it's regarded as a cult horror classic and a testimony to an all to brief career.

Watch the whole of Witchfinder General here...

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