Saturday, April 5, 2014

#179: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: We did it. Another list has bitten the dust. This is the final film on the Rue Morgue list of 100 alternative horror films for the connoisseur. I started this blog in 2007 as a way to reconnect with my childhood love of horror films, a love that had fallen by the wayside, and that reconnection has turned into an obsession. The first 101 films I reviewed on the site were Fangoria's list of overlooked horror films, and when that came to an end, the Rue Morgue list was helpfully suggested by a reader. This list provided the next 78 reviews (both lists had 22 films in common). What I initially planned as a temporary blog that would end when the project ended has turned into a permanent one. My readership has increased, and this is the only one of my three blogs with a majority of readers who aren't friends or family. I get lots of feedback from horror fans, which I enjoy, even the handful of angry, abusive emails I received for expressing my discomfort with the rape scenes in I Spit on Your Grave. Weirdos.
So, here's the plan for the future. I have no intention of ending this blog while I remain alive. I recently purchased three horror film encyclopedias, both volumes of John McCarty's Official Splatter Movie Guide and Phil Hardy's The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, and I am going to write posts on as many films in these three books as I can before I am killed by death. McCarty's books focus on horror and exploitation films from the '70 and '80s, while Hardy's book is a comprehensive encyclopedia of horror from the silent film era until 1992. I am going to start from the top, alternating a different encyclopedia with each review for a little more variety, and keep going indefinitely. I will only skip films if I've already reviewed them here or if they are impossible to find. The Fangoria and Rue Morgue lists were carefully curated, and in taking both of them on, this blog has championed overlooked gems and cult films. That focus will expand a bit. In taking on the new guides and encyclopedias, I will be watching and writing about not only overlooked gems and cult classics but also famous classics, famous non-classics, terrible pieces of garbage, bizarro oddities, historically important works, the mediocre, and the merely entertaining. Quality and quantity will now exist side by side. I'm taking it all on. But before I do that, let's get to Witchfinder General.
The Rue Morgue list began with a great Vincent Price film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and it closes with another. Witchfinder General, the final film by the talented but very ill-fated Michael Reeves, is based on a historical novel by Ronald Bassett about real-life witch hunter and lawyer Matthew Hopkins. (Of course this guy's day job was being a lawyer.) Hopkins traveled all over England and was paid by local magistrates to extract confessions from and mete out punishments to accused witches. Historians estimate that Hopkins and his assistant are responsible for sixty percent of the deaths of accused witches in England, which is a staggering statistic even if the numbers are much lower. Hopkins referred to himself as "Witchfinder General" even though no such title was bestowed by Parliament. Reeves' film takes this historical figure and surrounds him with a fictional story of love and revenge in the English countryside.
Taking place in 1645 during the English Civil War, the film focuses on a Roundhead soldier, Richard (Ian Ogilvy), his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer), and her uncle, a village priest named John (Rupert Davies). As is all too common in our weak human nature during times of crisis (in this case the civil war), the general populace has responded to the turmoil by becoming an unthinking, paranoid, accusatory mob. Unfortunately for our trio of sympathetic characters, the villagers have accused John of witchcraft. Enter the witchfinder general, Matthew (Vincent Price) and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell). Stearne is a sadist and opportunist, who cares little for Matthew (the feeling is mutual), but enjoys the moneymaking opportunities and the chance to torture people. Stearne is a small-minded, banal man of simple evil, but Matthew is pretty frightening. He's also a sadist and opportunist, but on a much larger scale. He's intelligent, calculating, has political power and authority (though not as much as he thinks), and a complete lack of empathy for his fellow men and women. He knows he's sending innocent people to their deaths and doesn't care. He's in it for money, sexual favors, the wielding of power, and the voyeuristic thrill he gets from Stearne's torture tactics.
Price is excellent in the part, bringing a subtle, underplayed menace to the role that contrasts with some of the campier, bigger performances he was giving at the time. Director Reeves did not want Price in the part, fearing he would ham it up, but the film's financiers demanded his participation. Reeves promptly let everyone, including Price, know that he wasn't Reeves' choice, and the two men had a fraught, unhappy relationship on set. Reeves got exactly the performance he wanted from Price, so I'm not sure why he continued to treat him so poorly. Price, despite his horrible time on set, loved the results and wrote Reeves a ten-page letter praising the film and apologizing for his doubts. Reeves failed to return the apology, but he wrote back that he knew Price would love the film once he saw it.
There are many other pleasures in Witchfinder General besides Vincent Price's menacing, quiet performance. Reeves was a naturally gifted director who understood film innately as a visual medium. There are no uninteresting shots, no images included merely for expository information, and no clunky transitions, but there are also no images or shots that are flashy or unnecessary. The use of real rural English locations instead of studio sets gives the film a haunting, timeless quality. The violence is more graphic and extreme than most films of the period, but its use is always pointed and never gratuitous, and Witchfinder General is remarkably critical of the concept of revenge, a concept that is too often elevated to a virtue in American and British genre films. Reeves has an economy of expression that wrings a lot of impact from lean, short scenes that move gracefully to the next moment. I wonder what he could have accomplished had he lived longer.
Michael Reeves' life was both fascinating and short. Obsessed with film and wanting to be a filmmaker since he was a small child, Reeves and his childhood friend, actor Ian Ogilvy, made Super 8 movies as kids, with Reeves using his mother's tea trolley to assist with tracking shots. Though Reeves and his mother were poor, they received a financial windfall when a wealthy relative died and left them some money when Reeves was 15. After graduating high school at 17, Reeves took a chunk of that inheritance and flew from his home in Surrey, England to Los Angeles. He found the address of his favorite director, Don Siegel, and turned up at Siegel's doorstep uninvited, asking for work. The amused Siegel greatly enjoyed the ballsy British teenager's spontaneous visit and offered him a job. The child prodigy quickly moved from crew member to filmmaker, directing three horror films (She Beast, The Sorcerers, and Witchfinder General) by the age of 24. Unfortunately, while preparing for his fourth film, an adaptation of Poe's The Oblong Box, he died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 25.
Despite this truncated life and career, Reeves' final film continues to resonate. The film's rural locations, English Civil War setting, and a few of the shots influenced Ben Wheatley's latest film, the very good A Field in England. Metal bands are big fans as well. The film gave its name to early '80s British metal band Witchfinder General and an EP by Cathedral and inspired a song by Electric Wizard. How can you argue with those credentials? You can't. Witchfinder General kicks ass.
Trivia tidbit that didn't fit with the rest of my review: The film was released in certain markets as The Conqueror Worm, an almost as metal-worthy title, and credited to Edgar Allen Poe to cash in on a mini-craze of Poe films, though Poe's work had nothing to do with this movie. A new prologue and epilogue were shot with Price reading from Poe's poem of the same name. It's not as funny as the rebranding of Tombs of the Blind Dead as a Planet of the Apes sequel (the ghosts' origin story scenes were removed and a new prologue was filmed explaining that the murderous beings were the ghosts of a race of apemen from outer space), but it's still a bit of a headscratcher.

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