Friday, September 11, 2009

Witchfinder General

Now that I am all cracker jack on Halloween Oreos and beer, it is time for me to write about "Witchfinder General" starring the immortal Vincent Price. How could you not love a film with the tag line "He'll hang, burn, & mutilate you." It is a guaranteed good time.
"Witchfinder General" was made in 1968 and released in the states as "The Conqueror Worm" to piggy back on the popularity of Corman's Poe films. This film has about as much to do with Poe as "Twilight" does, but slap on some audio of Price reading Poe's poem before the flick and there you go. Set in England during the 17th Century, "Witchfinder" tells the story of Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer and witch hunter who roamed the English countryside during the Civil War prosecuting and executing suspected Witches. Much like our own Salem Witch hunts, it only took the accusation of Witchcraft to bring the law down on you. Hopkins, based on an actual historical figure (although greatly exaggerated) made a pretty penny during his days as a Witch-hunter and indulged his own sadistic streak (in the film. In real life, Hopkins was without a doubt an asshole, but he was no Vincent Price evil asshole. No one did evil asshole like Price.)

"Witchfinder General" was directed by 24 year old "wunderkind" Michael Reeves. Reeves had directed two films before "Witchfinder:" "La sorella di Satana" (The She-beast,) 1966, and "The Sorcerers," 1967. The first film, with a cameo by Barbara Steele, I have heard is not so great. The second film, starring Boris Karloff and Reeve's childhood friend Ian Ogilvy, was supposed to be better (please see awesome preview in earlier post.) "Witchfinder General" was considered his masterpiece. It would have been considered the first great film of a great filmmaker, but Reeves died of a drug overdose 9 months after the film came out. It is one of those great "What could have been?" scenarios. Would he have gone on to a great career or would he have burned out like another "wunderkind" Orson Welles? He was working on another film with Price when he died. That would have been very interesting since the two did not get along during the making of "Witchfinder."

Word is Price was not Reeves first choice to play Hopkins, but Price was under contract to AIP and they insisted he play the part. Reeves, quite understandably, was worried about Price's tendency towards camp, and wanted the role played quite seriously. The result of that struggle of styles is one of the most restrained yet terrifying performances by Price. He is SCARY. He takes his job dead serious. He kills for money while pretending to do if for God. He feels no guilt and no compassion. He uses people, like the poor niece of a Priest he has put to death, for his own selfish needs (yes, Price gets down and dirty here.) When the niece's husband comes after him looking for revenge, he arranges HIS death. Along the way there is torture, rape, death by drowning, death by hanging, death by fire, and someone gets hacked to death with an ax. This is 1968 people!!! Critics were outraged. Audiences were scandalized. See, a good time was had by all.
I loved this film, and not only because of Price. It is actually, despite all the torture and burning and whatnot, a very beautiful film. It is set in the English countryside and there is not a bad shot in this pic. And the ending! The ending is such a downer, especially for a film from this era, you keep watching through the credits thinking the happy ending is right around the corner. Guess what- it is not. I watched it with my Dad and even he was "What the shit?" My advice is to get your Michael Reeves film festival underway. Three films! Enjoy!


Cellar Door said...

You've convinced me! Witchfinder is going on the Netflix list.

Jen said...

Great! I love spreading the word about good (and sometimes very bad) movies!