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Witchfinder General (1968)

Courtesy of Eurolondon

Main image of Witchfinder General (1968)
35mm, colour, 87 mins
DirectorMichael Reeves
Production CompanyTigon British Productions Ltd.
ProducerArnold Louis Miller
ScreenplayMichael Reeves
 Tom Baker
Original novelRonald Bassett
PhotographyJohn Coquillon
Music byPaul Ferris

Cast: Vincent Price (Matthew Hopkins); Ian Ogilvy (Richard Marshall); Robert Russell (John Stearne); Hilary Dwyer (Sara)

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Civil-War England. Matthew Hopkins, lawyer and self-appointed 'Witchfinder General', tours the Eastern counties instigating witch-hunts and extracting 'confessions' under torture. When a young woman, Sara, is raped by Hopkins and his brutal assistant, John Stearne, and her priest father murdered, her lover, Richard, a soldier in Cromwell's army, vows revenge.

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The last and best film of director Michael Reeves' tragically brief career, Witchfinder General is one of a select few horror films to have transcended their genre to win broad critical admiration - in Britain, perhaps only Peeping Tom (d. Michael Powell, 1960) and The Wicker Man (d. Robin Hardy, 1971) have been similarly favoured. All three films had to overcome native critics' customary disdain for horror, and in the case of Witchfinder General, it took Reeves' premature death for the film's visionary power to be fully appreciated.

Released in May 1968, as unrest fomented in Paris and the hippie dream began to darken, Witchfinder General tapped into the swelling anti-authority mood of its time in its tale of Matthew Hopkins, whose real-life counterpart roamed a Civil War-torn East Anglia, inflaming superstition and exploiting mistrust, abetted (and generously paid) by local magistrates. But most impressive is the way the film satisfies a horror audience while saying something quite profound about the passive acceptance of violence and its corrupting power.

Reeves drew from Vincent Price (forced on him by US co-producers AIP; Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasance) an uncharacteristically restrained performance that accentuates Hopkins' inscrutable menace, fuelled by insincere piety and an overwhelming misogyny: "strange, isn't it," he muses, "how much iniquity the Lord invested in the female". Just as disturbing is the stony impassivity of the villagers as they gaze on each new atrocity. In one memorable image, children roast potatoes in the same flames that have just consumed another innocent victim.

From its shocking opening sequence, in which a sun-dappled rural paradise is disturbed by a hanging, Reeves counterpoints natural beauty with brutality and cruelty, aided by John Coquillon's ravishing photography and by the splendour of Suffolk's unspoiled towns and landscape.

Chief censor John Trevelyan demanded several cuts, despite Reeves' eloquent defence. Nevertheless, many British critics, including writer Alan Bennett, were disgusted with the film. In a further indignity, for its American release, AIP bizarrely renamed the film The Conqueror Worm, in a vain attempt to associate it with its own Poe series. A more serious intervention was, thankfully, overruled - in place of Reeves' ending, in which both the hero, Richard, and his young bride, Sara, are driven to the point of madness, AIP had wanted the couple, as Reeves put it, "riding blissfully into the sunset". That, the director acknowledged, really would have been a cut too far.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. A hanging (2:36)
2. An accusation (4:05)
3. Due process (2:10)
4. A prayer and an oath (3:02)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Terror (1979)
Witches, The (1966)
Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)
Miller, Arnold Louis (1922-)
Reeves, Michael (1944-1969)
Tigon British Film Productions