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WITCHFINDER GENERAL
Blu Ray region A/B/C. Odeon.

Witchfinder GeneralMichael 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.

Witchfinder GeneralThe 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..

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)

 

 

 

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