Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 2 release of Witchfinder General. A strange, flawed but compelling horror film is released on a not-bad disc from Metrodome, with some interesting extras
British horror films from around 1958 until the 1970s have acquired a bad reputation, despite an acknowledged number of classics such as Dracula, The Wicker Man, or even the completely bizarre Death Line; the vast majority of these films were, unfortunately, more risible than frightening, due to low budgets and laughably hammy acting. However, the typical cliché of the generic zombie/werewolf/vampire film of that era, often starring Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, is half dispelled in Michael Reeves’ flawed but occasionally brilliant film, which was, unfortunately, his last before his death in mysterious circumstances in 1969 at the age of 25. While it isn’t quite the masterpiece some would claim it is, it’s certainly an interesting portent to what should have been an excellent career.
The plot works on two levels. Superficially, it’s a horror film about Matthew Hopkins (Price) and his assistant Stearne (Russell), as they travel the English countryside torturing and hanging suspected witches, with the violence counterpointed by the love affair between Marshall (Oglivy), a young Roundhead soldier, and Sara (Dwyer), the daughter of a local priest. However, the film also works as an examination of social breakdown, in which a man such as Hopkins can thrive through murder and torture. There’s actually no supernatural element to the film at all, despite the film’s status as ‘horror’; the most frightening parts of the film are the various executions, all of which are unflinchingly depicted.
The casting of Vincent Price- an actor by then synonymous with cheap, overacted trash- was forced on Reeves by the producers, rather than through his own choice (he favoured Donald Pleasance for the part), leading to much tension on set. Kim Newman’s excellent production notes comment on Price’s performance splitting audiences down the middle, with some seeing it as perfect, others as the film’s major flaw. Personally, I’ve always felt that Price is surprisingly good, but miscast; his slightly American accent and inimitably campy presence means that Hopkins, for all his dead-eyed tyranny, is never as chilling a character as he should be. Another problem is that the character of Stearne is far too broad a comic creation, and reduces the feeling of threat; some of the torture scenes feel closer to Monty Python and the Holy Grail than a serious film about witchcraft.
However, the film is saved by Reeves’ confident direction; set around East Anglia for the most part, the film looks entirely different to most British films of the period, contrasting the beauty of towns like Lavenham with the genuine horror of the burnings and hangings, which have a detachment to them that make them all the more disturbing. Oglivy- who worked with Reeves on all his films- and Dwyer are both charming as the young lovers, avoiding the cloying sentiment that might have blighted their scenes together, and making them sympathetic. Finally, the ending is quite brilliant, finally taking the film into classic territory, with as disturbing an examination of mental deterioration as any more famous film. It would be a crime to give it away, but, for those who have seen the film…’You took him from me! You took him from me!’
The film has two different versions presented on this DVD, the director’s cut, complete with scenes of added violence, and the international cut, complete with (utterly gratuitous) nudity in the tavern scenes. The quality of the added footage in the director’s cut is almost unwatchably awful, looking like particularly bad VHS material, but that was almost certainly the best presentation of it available, and it adds a great deal to some scenes, provided you can stand the temporary deterioration. The picture is otherwise fairly good, with some strong colours, but the print damage is very obvious indeed throughout, with cigarette burns, scratches and heavy grain marring the print. Still, it’s the best presentation of the film to date, and no worse than Anchor Bay’s Evil Dead disc that was released recently.
A fairly pleasing mono mix is provided, which showcases the melodic score nicely, and makes the dialogue comprehensible. The film never needed a 5.1 remix, and the absence of one doesn’t make any difference to enjoying the presentation.
For a back-catalogue release, Metrodome have provided a fairly pleasing number of extras, including some atmospheric animated menus. The best is a 22-minute documentary on the films of Reeves, ‘Blood Beast’; most of his collaborators appear, including Oglivy, Dwyer and others from the film, and his films are intelligently discussed in some depth, although the overall feeling is ‘what a waste’ rather than ‘what a talent’. There are some very detailed production notes by Kim Newman (who also appears in the documentary), trailers for the film and Reeves’ previous film The Sorcerers, an interesting-looking piece of hokum with Boris Karloff, a hilariously awful music video by the Wishbone Ash-esque heavy metal band ‘Cathedral’, and an interesting animated photo gallery, containing the usual lobby cards and posters. Not a bad selection at all, although a commentary track by Newman, Oglivy and others might have been nice.
A rather good British horror film is released on a disc that has a flawed but watchable picture, OK sound and some good extras; for the RRP of £15.99, this is certainly worth a look, even if the individualistic approach of the film isn’t to your immediate taste.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum