Feb 15, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No. 64

Click the title below for the trailer.

DIR: Michael Reeves

Michael Reeves was the wunderkind of low budget British cinema in the 60's. This, his third and final film, was also considered the one that really marked him out as a talent to watch for the future. He was 24 when Witchfinder General (known in the US by the odd title The Conqueror Worm) was made, and 25 when he died of a drug overdose, during pre-production for his next film.

If Witchfinder General became Reeves' epitaph he could hardly have asked for a better one; a focused, frightening and disturbing horror film, groundbreaking for its time in its depiction of violence and containing the finest performance of genre legend Vincent Price.

The film is based on the real life figure of Matthew Hopkins, self described 'Witchfinder General' of England during the civil war. His activities were actually quite short lived (1645-47) and ended not as the film does but in retirement from the post. It was clearly a reign of terror, if estimates are to be believed Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne may have been responsible for 40% of the executions for witchcraft ever carried out in England. He was also a great deal younger than Vincent Price plays him, perhaps as young as 25 at his death. The film may not be wedded to the facts, but that almost certainly helps it find its propulsive plot, which has Hopkins and Stearne pursued by a young captain in Cromwell's army (played by Ian Ogilvy, who was in all of Reeves' films) who is seeking revenge for the rape of his fiancé and the hanging as a witch of her uncle, a priest.

Vincent Price and Michael Reeves apparently hated each other. Reeves didn't want Price (he was after Donald Pleasance), but the star was forced on him by production company Tigon, and Price knew this. Price was also apparently incensed by Reeves' constant demands that he 'do less' and 'stop acting'. It may have made Witchfinder General hell to make but even Price, once he saw the film, agreed that this was his finest performance. Instead of being camp, as he often was, Price oozes cruelty and menace in a tightly wound, thin lipped, performance. His Hopkins is vile, clearly aware of his own evil, and yet insistent that his is 'the lord's work'. This is a chillingly corrupt psychopath, allowed by timing and superstition to run amock, killing and often raping as he pleases and being paid for his trouble.

Reeves doesn't indulge in the violence as much the directors of his generation who would make their first cinematic bows in the next few years; Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg among them, but what Witchfinder General lacks in explicitness it makes up many fold in impact. Much of the torture and killing in the film is played on the reaction of spectators, the screams of the victims telling the story that British censorship at the time stopped the images from relating. In many way this is more disturbing; gore effects of this time often look silly now, but Reeves allows our imaginations to go to work, and that's always going to produce a more disturbing image in the circumstances.

This is not to say that the violence of the film lacks either credibility or impact, indeed the execution scenes are done with chilling realism and indeed chilling nonchalance. From the opening hanging to the climactic burning of a young woman in a Suffolk town square, the images of violence are confrontational and upsetting.

If the other performances don't quite come up to Price's level that's okay (though Ogilvy makes for a solid hero), few apart from Hilary Dwyer (beautiful, but no great shakes in the acting department) have much to do, and there are no real embarrassments among the cast. Price commands the screen, and his performance is mesmerising, as is the film as a whole. Witchfinder General is a disturbing experience as a film, but it's even more so when you take a step back and consider that, at least in broad strokes, it's true.

Ducking: We've all heard about this practice to 'discover' whether an accused person was a witch, but to see it so graphically depicted is genuinely disturbing.

Burn the witch: Reeves spares no detail in this scene of Hopkins' most horrifying method of execution.

[Hopkins and his men throw three securely-bound people into the moat as a witchcraft test]
Matthew Hopkins: They swim... the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang.

[a tied-up woman Hopkins has thrown into the moat to test for witchcraft drowns]
Matthew Hopkins: She was innocent

Matthew Hopkins: Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.

To buy the film and help out 24FPS at the same time, please use the links below. Thanks.

No comments:

Post a Comment