Posts Tagged ‘Witchfinder General’

Lover as I am of pretty much all of Hammer Films’ horror and fantasy output, I still have to admit that I can’t see these films appealing much to a youthful modern audience, lest it be due to their perceived ‘campness’. Well, I suppose that’s okay; I have no time for most modern horror films – never seen a Saw, never seen a Hostel, the closest I came was a quite frankly appalling film called Captivity, which… well, that’s another story.

Having said that, I watched Witchfinder General (1968) again the other night, and I can see the glimmerings of a connection there between the Gothic horrors of the 1960s and the torture porn befouling modern cinemas. Witchfinder General isn’t, of course, a Hammer production, nor does it feature any of the famous Hammer faces: but it does feature a period setting and a very distinguished leading actor in the title role – Vincent Price, in case you’ve never heard of this film.

If you don’t know this movie the plot is as follows: Matthew Hopkins (Price) and his torturer assistant (Robert Russell) roam an England in the throes of civil war, claiming to do God’s work but really just getting rich and indulging their appetites as they persecute anyone unlucky enough to even come under the suspicion of being a witch. This includes a Catholic priest, whom they eventually hang, despite his comely niece (Hilary Dwyer)’s attempts to save him. Learning what has transpired, a young soldier engaged to the niece (Ian Ogilvy) vows revenge on the self-styled Witchfinder General.

Witchfinder General tends to get mentioned in the same breath as The Wicker Man, a film with which it doesn’t really have that many similarities – this is a movie about the collapse of all morality, whereas The Wicker Man is about a clash of different social codes. But one thing they do have in common, which makes them fairly unusual for horror films of their period, is that neither of them is really a fantasy. Basically, Witchfinder General doesn’t feature any witches, and the villain of the piece is an establishment figure. Price gives a remarkable performance, and is utterly unrecognisable from the Poe movies he was best known for at the time – there’s no trace of the charm he displayed in most of those. Here, he is just a nasty, nasty piece of work.

An uncharitable reviewer might say the same about the whole movie, to be honest. The BBFC’s report on an early draft of the script described it as ‘a study in sadism in which every detail of cruelty and suffering is lovingly dwelt on‘ and this really survives into the final version. Compared to the kind of thing Hammer and Amicus were making at around the same time, Witchfinder General is startlingly explicit, even disturbingly so – the print the BBC showed has clearly been reconstructed from a heavily-censored earlier edit, restoring various graphic stabbings, beatings, eye-gougings and women being burnt alive.

I did actually think to myself at one point ‘This is just torture porn – being in period dress and having Vincent Price in it doesn’t excuse anything’. And it does lack the gentility of other British horror films of this time, their (mostly) high production values, and their reassuringly strong moral framework (basically, you always know who the bad guy is and that the young lovers will escape at the end). Witchfinder General has a good guy and a bad guy, true, but it’s certainly not reassuring – rather than the restoration of the status quo, with virtue triumphant, this movie ends with a crescendo of frenzied violence, gore, and madness.

And one does sense that the script by Reeves and (not the) Tom Baker is trying to say something about the nature of human beings and society, even if it’s not something particularly optimistic – in other words, the film isn’t quite just a string of torture sequences strung together. I can’t quite work out what that is beyond the rather obvious ‘left to their own devices, people will behave like animals’, and I certainly can’t detect any sense of what the film thinks could be done about this – but it’s enough to elevate the film above the level of just being a splatter nasty graced by one of the greatest performances of one of horror’s greatest actors.

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