Michael Reeves is the James Dean of film directing. Like Dean, he is almost always spoken of in terms of the career that could’ve been, of the films left unmade. His tragically short life only allowed him time to complete three feature films, hardly a filmography large enough to warrant the reputation. But the talent on display was so very real and so oddly mature for a filmmaker only 26 years old at the time of his death that it’s hard not to imagine what this brilliant young director would’ve created had he lived longer.
Certainly by the time he completed Witchfinder General, he had jumped light years ahead of his first two films in terms of artistic command and was clearly in tune with his own sensibilities. Perhaps not surprisingly for a young man who spent years dealing with his own depression, this sensibility was dark and fatalistic. An ideological view that keeps the somewhat dated and budget-starved Witchfinder General a powerful experience even today. So, instead of imagining the films never made, we now have an excellent DVD release of a film that stands as a testament to this young director’s skill and talent.
Witchfinder General is set in England during the rule of Cromwell and is the story of Matthew Hopkins(Vincent Price), a self-styled hunter of witches, who goes from village to village rooting out the local “evil” and punishing those he deems to be in league with the devil. The truth is that Hopkins is no stranger to evil himself and like many who seek power; he is completely corrupted by it, using his power to gain wealth, status and sexual favors.
The crux of the plot hangs on Hopkins’ “cleansing” of one particular village and the young woman, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer) whom he attempts to blackmail sexually in exchange for both her own life and that of her uncle (Rupert Davies). Hopkins has no real intention to keep his end of the bargain and the uncle is hanged for “witchcraft” anyway. Sarah’s fiancée’, soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), soon discovers that not only has the uncle been wrongfully executed but that Sarah has been violated as well. Marrying Sarah in a private ceremony, Marshall vows to her and God that he will find Hopkins and make him pay for the crimes with his life.
The plot synopsis sounds like any number of European horror films produced in the 1960s and in many ways this one is no different. The presence of Vincent Price suggests all kinds of camp theatrics and fun Grand Guignol like those found in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations. In fact, Witchfinder General was never released in the United States under that title since American-International Pictures (AIP), the distributor of those Poe flicks, wanted to capitalize on the casting of Price by making it seem like yet another entry in the Corman series. They picked Edgar Allan’s poem, The Conqueror Worm for their title and had Price record a short excerpt from it to play before the credits. But anyone who expected another colorful romp through old castles and premature burials was in for a real shock when presented with this cynical and bleak film. Reeves turned the genre on its head by depicting a world where good and evil were not separate forces but could be found in the hearts of even the most honorable men.
Reeves’ childhood friend Ian Ogilvy had already played the leads in his first two films and by Witchfinder General was clearly a kind of cinematic alter ego for the director. Ogilvy was perfect casting for the seemingly heroic and honorable young soldier Richard Marshall, a man whose soul is poisoned forever by his encounter with Hopkins. By the end of the film, Marshall has left justice way behind and has descended to Hopkins’ level of corrupt morality. Marshall’s final line, “You’ve taken him from me!” is incredibly haunting and a very profound dramatization of the endless and unsatisfying nature of revenge. No matter how evil a man is, he can only be killed once and for those filled with hate, once can never be enough.
Hands down, this is Vincent Price’s greatest performance. Reeves had originally wanted Donald Pleasance(Halloween) for the lead and was disappointed by the enforced casting of Price by American-International. Reportedly he did not keep his displeasure a secret from the actor and the two shared a rocky relationship from the start. But it’s clear that Reeves wanted and got more from Price than the actor expected to give. This is what’s most surprising when viewing the film for the first time as Price seems to be almost TOO perfect for the role.
What would be surprising with the eccentric Pleasance as Hopkins is completely obvious and expected from someone like Vincent Price. But Price dials the theatrics down without losing a bit of his wonderful charm and mischievous humor. The result is something close to the real-life version of all those deviant, twisted and often hammy villains he specialized in playing. Reeves may have wanted the surprise of Pleasance but what he got from Price was something near a classic performance.
The history of Witchfinder General on video has been a travesty of almost Wellesian proportions. While not as butchered as Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Reeves’ film has not exactly been treated with the utmost respect. The original home video release on VHS was the most absurd, replacing the great score by Paul Ferris with some Casio synth garbage to save a buck for the music rights. The image was also washed out, seemingly struck from an old drive-in print. This release, as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies Collection, is an improvement on all counts and until either Anchor Bay or Criterion decides to top it, should be considered the definitive version of the film available on DVD. I sincerely doubt that the film has looked as good since it’s release in 1968.
The film is uncut and is the original version with the title Witchfinder General onscreen instead of AIP’s Conqueror Worm. Included is a 26 minute documentary, Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves’ Horror Classic, which is at least a half hour shorter than it could’ve been since Reeves’ life and career are so interesting and peculiar. But it’s still an informative and entertaining addition. The most significant extra is the commentary track by producer Phillip Waddilove and star Ian Ogilvy that covers the entire production in as much detail as can be expected for a film made 40 years ago. Reeves is remembered fondly but both Waddilove and Ogilvy discuss the film quite honestly. Ogilvy points out the film’s qualities and flaws as he sees them but is much too hard on himself as an actor. His performance in Witchfinder contributes much to its effectiveness onscreen.
Really, the only problem with the film is that of hype. Its reputation makes any initial viewing somewhat of a letdown. It’s not the most violent film ever made, not the most horrific, nor is it really at all frightening in the traditional sense. It fits less in the genre of horror than in the kind of films that would follow in the ‘70s with tales of torture, survival and revenge like Straw Dogs and Deliverance. In many ways this is the definitive precursor to both of those films and to other morally ambiguous genre films like Last House on the Left.
This is not the kind of horror that comes from cobwebs and creaky doors. Its horrors are all too human and impossible to cast off with a simple fade out. In fact, Reeves seems to even hint at this with his very accomplished cinematic grammar. He ends the film without a simple fade out or epilogue but with the terrified expression and screams of the seemingly insane Hilary Dwyer. The film freeze frames on her anguish as if to say that none of this madness really ends. We’re just lucky to be allowed to get off the ride here.