Blu Ray region A/B/C. Odeon.
Reeves’ 1968 movie Witchfinder General
has long felt like some sort of marker in the horror genre –
alongside Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s
Baby, both released the same year, it represents the
point where horror began to move away from the cosy, safe world
of Hammer and into the dark, challenging world it occupied during
the Golden Age of the 1970s.
Of the three films, Witchfinder is the most traditional
– a period piece, and starring horror icon Vincent Price,
it is a film that could easily have been lost amongst a glut of
other British horror films, and even now it doesn’t have
the same stellar reputation – at least outside genre fandom
and criticism – that the other two have. However, it may
well be the most interesting of all three.
Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a 17th century travelling witchfinder
who crosses the country during the civil war, along with assistant
John Stearne (Robert Russell), seeking out witches to ‘interrogate’
and, once they have confessed, burn at the stake – all for
a tidy profit. When Hopkins is spurned by Sara (Hilary Dwyer),
he rapes her and then accuses her priest uncle (Rupert Davies)
of witchcraft. When Sara’s fiancé Richard Marshall
(Ian Ogilvy), a Roundhead soldier, discovers what has happened,
he sets out on a trail of vengeance, as Hopkins and Stearne flee.
The finale – famously one of cinema’s bleakest moments
– sees everyone’s live destroyed.. it’s far
from the traditional horror movie happy ending of the time.
Based loosely on the life of real life witchhunter Hopkins (and
on the historical novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett), the
facts are never allowed to get in the way of the drama by Reeves
and screenwriter Tom Baker, who instead deliver a searing, angry
attack on the hypocrisy and superstition of the time. This is
the film that Reeves was building towards with his earlier works,
and his direction cannot be faulted; you have to wonder what he
would’ve come up with had he lived longer.
tensions between Reeves and Price – a star he didn’t
want but who was insisted on by co-producers AIP – are legendary,
and you can understand why the director was reluctant to work
with a man who, both before and after this film, was known for
his florid, camp performances (performances that were, it must
be said, entirely in keeping with most of the roles he was playing).
But the actor here is a revelation, dialling things down to a
point where his performance is understated, intense and chilling;
it’s probably his finest moment. Ogilvy too is impressive
as the doomed hero who is even denied the satisfaction of revenge
as the film reaches it’s bleak conclusion.
Witchfinder General spawned a number of imitators
and semi-sequels. Production companies Tigon and AIP both followed
it with films that had a similar rural period feel – ‘folk
horror’ as it’s been called – but posited the
idea that Hopkins might have had a point by featuring genuine
supernatural witch cults, in the form of Blood on Satan’s
Claw and Cry of the Banshee, while Michael
Armstrong (a friend of Reeves who provides commentary on this
disc) cranked up the graphic violence in German production Mark
of the Devil and Jess Franco took a couple of stabs at
the genre with The Bloody Judge and the rather
less respectable The Demons. You could even include
Ken Russell’s The Devils in the genre at
a stretch. There’s a strong case for arguing that Reeves’
film is the best of the bunch though.
Unavailable on disc for some years, this Blu-Ray is most welcome,
especially as it comes packed with extras. These include some
ported from previous releases, including alternative scenes with
nudity from the ‘export version’ (a common practice
at a time when British censors were much stricter than the rest
of the world and sex and violence were strong selling points)
and the Reeves short Intrusion, while the alternative
US credits, documentary about Reeves and TV interview with Price,
a featurette and the aforementioned commentary are all new to
this edition, making it well worth an upgrade..
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