It was with great pleasure that I finally sat down and watched the new release of this cult British horror film. Fans of Michael Reeves' film have been waiting a long time for MGM/Fox to release this. Why? Because MGM turned up all of the cut scenes in their vault a while ago and set about restoring the film.
...shots of topless tavern wenches at the behest of 'producer' Louis HeywardWitchfinder General has had a chequered history on VHS and DVD. Numerous versions have been doing the rounds. I think Redemption released an uncut version on VHS, restoring the cut sequences from a laser disc version and then Prism, later Optimum, released a 'Director's Cut' on DVD along with a European version in the same DVD set which included shots of topless tavern wenches at the behest of 'producer' Louis Heyward. However, their restoration of the cut sequences used what looked like inserts from a VHS version. This was a shame as the actual print they were inserting these into wasn't bad at all. So, finally, in September 2007, Fox put out a completely restored version on DVD in their Midnite Movies range. This is the definitive version as all the gore and violence, originally cut by the BBFC, has been properly returned to the film.
...a deep seated appreciation of an English arcadia that's used as a backdrop to examine the nature of warIt stands as one of my personal favourite British films...full stop. Michael Reeves essentially transposes the John Ford western to the English countryside. Calling it a horror film has always slightly done it a disservice in my opinion. Yes, it is violent and gory but it isn't fantastical. It's based on an historical figure who actually did profit from exposing innocent men and women as 'witches'. So it's more of a historical pastiche than anything else. There is some stunning imagery here - beautifully composed landscapes, driving tracking shots of riders and their horses dashing across vast stretches of countryside. Particularly lovely are cinematographer John Coquillon's establishing shots for Hilary Dwyer by the stream, Vincent Price framed against a diminishing row of trees, Ian Ogilvy going full pelt on his horse through a parting wave of sheep. These evoke a deep seated appreciation of an English arcadia that's used as a backdrop to examine the nature of war, revenge, evil as a contagion...
Coquillon's work here is a revelation and he went on to photograph a number of Sam Peckinpah's films. Equally triumphant is the score by Paul Ferris. How a score as beautiful as this could be removed from the US VHS version and replaced with a synthesiser based score is beyond me. It's rightly returned to the film and again plugs into an English sensibility about the countryside with its orchestral riffs on Greensleeves. It's long overdue for a proper release on CD and last I heard rights owners DeWolfe were planning a commercial release.
Reeves was clearly influenced by Westerns in his treatment of the subject matter and the main characterCoquillon and Ferris manage to add an epic quality to what was essentially a low budget British film and director Reeves was clearly influenced by Westerns in his treatment of the subject matter and the main character. He sensibly reined in Price's campier excesses, was perhaps a little ungracious in his treatment of the venerable actor by doing so, and gets a superbly intense performance from the actor. One of Price's best efforts for the screen and a superb essay in how evil men can manipulate innocents to do their bidding but also taint those that would oppose them. Ian Ogilvy is also rather good as the initially morally good soldier who ends up carrying out an insane vendetta against Hopkins. The film is littered with turns from some truly great British character actors from Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark and Wilfrid Brambell. As the female lead, Hilary Dwyer is fine if a little unsure and her character, the epitome of innocence, is yet another casualty of Hopkins corruption.
It's still an incredibly powerful film, way ahead of its time in 1968, and now that the nastier bits of torture, witch burning and axe killings have been properly restored the bleakness of its brutal, grim message is further underscored. It comments much on the times it was made in, with 1968 very much a year of generational clashes, moral argument and a come down from the hedonism of the mid-1960s. It's certainly a film about 'reality' and therefore is in direct contradiction to the Gothic fantasies of Hammer and Amicus. The moral ambiguity and the very realistic approach to violence that the film raises was probably the first time that a British 'horror' film took this route. It may be a period film but the issues it was dealing with were, and still are, utterly contemporary. For me, it has a direct line to films like Straw Dogs.
For this 2007 release, the restoration ups the picture quality over the Region 2 version with colours and sharpness much improved. There are less scratches and speckles than on the UK version too. The Region 1 DVD also includes a really great commentary track from producer Philip Waddilove, actor Ian Ogilvy and writer Steve Haberman. It's full of lively and amusing anecdotes and behind the scenes stories and is worth listening to. There's also a short documentary 'Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves’ Horror Classic' with interviews and an overview of director Reeves' short career. But don't chuck out your Prism/Optimum versions - they do carry the European Cut and another documentary 'Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves' which are worth keeping.
Oh, and it isn't anything to do with Edgar Allan Poe...even though the sleeve says it is. Bit of a blunder there MGM/Fox and an obvious hangover from the film's retitled release in the US as part of the AIP Poe adaptations.
Witchfinder General(Region 1 - Fox 108765 - Not Rated) Released 11th September 2007
Cathode Ray Tube Witchfinder General Michael Reeves Vincent Price