Thursday, 9 June 2011
BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Witchfinder General / Digitally Remastered Special Edition / Blu-ray Review
In horror cinema it marks the sea change from the Gothic fairytale of Hammer to the more realistic horror of Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973), as well as tracing a direct line through to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), Russell's The Devils (1971) and the films of Pete Walker. It appeared just as cinema censorship was on the brink of relaxing, taboos were being broken and offered a new direction for British horror cinema, one that didn't rely on period 19th Century supernatural and mythological elements to generate a sense of unease. In fact, to include it as a film within the horror genre is actually misleading because it is more a period piece about the nature of patriarchal power and religious hypocrisy.
It was made by our old friends Tigon, a production company founded by Tony Tenser in 1967. Tenser emerged from the world of British exploitation films, as a partner with Michael Klinger in Compton Films, a distribution company that began by importing sex and horror films and then expanded to make its own productions. Klinger later persuaded Tenser to back Repulsion (1965), an intense study of psychological breakdown and Roman Polanski's English-language debut. By 1967, they had split and Tenser had set up Tigon as a production company. It was Tenser who first saw the unpublished galley of Ronald Bassett's original novel of Witchfinder General in 1966.
Reeves, charged with shooting second unit, contributed some stylish sequences to the film. Producer Paul Maslansky, impressed with his work, offered him Revenge of the Blood Beast (AKA The She-Beast - 1966) a low budget potboiler featuring Barbara Steele (whom Maslansky had persuaded to do a cameo for next to nothing in three days flat) that he managed to elevate beyond its rather mundane origins and non-existent budget.
Back in London, Reeves co-scripted with his friend Tom Baker (no, not that one) an adaptation of John Burke's The Sorcerers (1967). Here, he directed the legendary Boris Karloff in a rather psychedelic thriller about an old couple who get their thrills by living vicariously through a brainwashed young man played by Ian Ogilvy (a long-term friend of Reeves). Again, Reeves turned a low budget thriller into a stylish, contemporary film and Tenser recognised that Reeves, and his writing associate Baker, would be the men to transform a slice of popular history about the real witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, into something more suitable for Tigon. Tenser earmarked a £100, 000 budget and a proviso that filming should begin in September of 1967 to ensure they had decent weather for what, in Baker's words, was a film where they wanted a lot of "movement across the landscape and across the country to be a strong theme."
Reeves and Baker took a number of elements and characters from Bassett's book and then fashioned a screenplay which, in its original form, was far more violent than the one that was originally filmed and according to Benjamin Halligan, in his book Michael Reeves, was "near-unfilmable by 1967 standards" but contained a terrifyingly cynical view of a "savage, animalistic and brutal world" that Reeves manages to inject into the final film. Both were conscious that the film needed to satisfy the requirements for exploitative horror, to bring in the Hammer audience as per Tenser's objective, but marry it with the historical and biographical elements about Hopkins in Bassett's book and an English Civil War pastoral western that borrows its context, as Andy Richards suggests in The DVD Stack, from the revenge westerns of Budd Boetticher. Halligan observes that all these disparate components create "a tension at the heart of the film."
Reeves and Baker originally wanted Donald Pleasance for the central role of Hopkins, agreeing he would be perfect casting because of the actor's penchant for experimentation in performance. However, a co-funding and distribution deal secured with American International Pictures, fresh from its foray into Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and a bevvy of hippy/psychedelia exploitation films like The Trip (1967), foisted upon them AIP's horror star-on-contract, Vincent Price.
Reeves was not altogether happy with this casting and much of the script had to be revised accordingly which was probably for the best as the BBFC were already getting very hot under the collar about the script which they had already rejected as "a study in sadism in which every detail of cruelty and suffering is lovingly dwelt on." Reeves and Baker's revisions would substantially tone down these aspects but the film would still end up cut by about four minutes by the BBFC for its “excesses of sadistic brutality.”
Meanwhile, the film went into production on a final budget of £83, 000 in September 1967 and some exteriors were shot in Norfolk and Suffolk and the Dunwich coast, in Black Park and Langley Park and the interior sets were filmed mainly in converted aircraft hangers in Bury St. Edmunds. The arrival of Price precipitated frequent clashes between the young director and ageing actor as Reeves desperately tried to reign in what he saw as Price's often florrid and camp performing style. The film was constantly short of equipment and extras and was briefly hit by a British technicians union strike. To cap it all, AIP producer Louis M Heywood insisted on the insertion of some brief nude scenes for the export version of the film, scenes he took great pleasure in 'supervising' on his brief visit to the set in Lavenham and which Tenser directed simply because Reeves refused to do so.
Equally praised (David Pirie regards it as “…one of the most personal and mature statements in the history of British cinema") and vilified (Alan Bennett called the work "the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I've ever seen"), the film fictionalises the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, a prolific, real-life "witch hunter," during the English Civil War. The Civil War setting is an interesting one when seen in context with the late 1960s. Upheavals in society and culture were reaching their height in the year the film was released and the period was something of a watershed in which youth culture completely rejected the idea of post-war deference to their elders at the same time attitudes relaxed about drugs and sex, abortion and homosexuality. It was a revolution that also found its way into political movements such as feminism and the anti-war movements.
The opening of the film also provides one of the major motifs that we'll see throughout Witchfinder General. A woman is dragged by a crowd through rolling countryside, the image framed by verdant hillsides and trees, and led by a minister to a freshly prepared gallows. Reeves contrasts the serenity of the natural landscape, the untainted English Arcadia, with a brutal act as the camera unflinchingly observes her public hanging. As the hangman kicks away the stool upon which she stands and her body swings out across the frame, in a scene that still packs a punch even today, the tone of Witchfinder General is bluntly established.
After the stark opening titles, a narration tells us that it is 1645 and that it is a period of unrest and England is in turmoil, with lawlessness abounding as a result of the Civil War between the Royalist Party of King Charles and the Roundhead Troopers in General Cromwell's Parliamentary Party. Reeves reinforces his motif again, the tranquility of the woodland is placed in stark contrast to the ambush that awaits Trooper Richard Marshall (a terrific Ian Ogilvy) and his men. There is a brilliant sequence here where Marshall waits with the horses as the rest of the men and his commanding officer deal with the rebels who ambushed them. Reeves holds Ogilvy in close up, his eyes darting across the woodland as he hears distant sounds of gunfire and fighting, cutting from him and to the eerily empty woods to emphasise how isolated and vulnerable he is. It's unlikely the production could afford a fully-fledged battle and this was Reeves striking solution.
When Hopkins arrives in Brandeston, he tortures John Lowes and sexually blackmails Sarah into believing that if she gives herself to him he will show mercy to her father. Again, Lowes arrest and torture are pre-empted by an idyllic scene showing Sarah walking by the river, John Coquillon's hazy cinematography offering a lush, golden, almost heavenly vision in stark contrast to the brutality of Stearne's torture of Lowes.
Marshall learns of Lowes death (he is ducked in water to prove his sorcery and then hung for his troubles) and goes absent without leave to find Sarah, in distress, in her father's vandalised church. The corrupt authority figure that Hopkins represents, one that would hypocritically seek to curb sexual permissiveness and non-Christian belief systems, is put on report by Marshall, who swears a vow to God that he and Sarah be 'married' and that he will seek revenge for her desecration and the murder of her father by Hopkins. Thus a specifically male conflict between the young officer and the older Hopkins is established as the film's major force, as the vengeful liberation of youth is positioned against the cynical and mechanical patriarchy of Hopkins. The death of Lowes is the male exception to the parade of violence inflicted on women in the film. As Emily Edwards offers in Metaphysical Media: the Occult Experience in Popular Culture, the film does not contextualise these victims with an ability to use 'magic' but merely shows them as "victims of licentious greed, misogyny and sadism."
It's here that the film achieves its bleak and despairing coda. Peter Hutchings, in Hammer and Beyond, sees the relationship between landscape, nature and the articulation of despair in the film reach its apotheosis with the final torture of Sarah and Marshall's axing to death of Hopkins. Marshall has by now become as obsessive as Hopkins and as cynically violent, psychotically desperate when the troops rescuing them shoot Hopkins dead before Marshall can finish him off. Sarah's final scream, as the objectified cause of all this trauma, "is a scream arising from a vividly portrayed male violence, a violence that seeks to preserve a certain masculine stability and power."
It was, and remains, a very powerful film. Reeves manages to get a very stripped down, intense performance from Price, probably one of the best he's ever given and that's something even he agreed with the director about after he'd seen the film and wrote a heartfelt letter praising the director despite their various differences. Price is well supported by Ogilvy, full of grit and determination as Marshall and spiralling into violent madness by the film's harrowing conclusion. Hilary Dwyer as Sarah, imbues a sensitivity in this poor woman's manipulation and repression at the hands of male power.
There is some stunning imagery here - beautifully composed landscapes, driving tracking shots of riders and their horses dashing across vast stretches of countryside - evoking 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 that plagues the land. Cinematographer John Coquillon's work here is a revelation and, unsurprisingly, he went on to photograph a number of iconoclast director Sam Peckinpah's films, including Cross of Iron with its own take on male authoritarianism. 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 been rightly returned to its deserved place in the film and offers its own musical flavouring to this essay about England undergoing momentous, and often corrupt, change.
Way ahead of its time in 1968, the bleakness of its brutal, grim message comments much on the times it was made in, a year of generational clashes, moral argument, social disintegration and a come down from the hedonism of the mid-1960s. 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.
Perhaps the last word should go to Reeves himself. Alan Bennett declared of the film, in The Listener eight days after the film's release, that "it was a degrading experience by which I mean it made me feel dirty." In a letter Reeves responded, "Violence is horrible, degrading and sordid. Insofar as one is going to show it on the screen at all, it should be presented as such - and the more people it shocks into sickened recognition of these facts the better. I wish I could have witnessed Mr. Bennett frantically attempting to wash away the 'dirty' feeling my film gave him. It would have been proof of the fact that Witchfinder General works as intended."
Tragically, Reeves never got the opportunity to make his audience feel 'dirty' about themselves again. At the age of 25, he was dead from a drug overdose a mere nine months after the film's release.
About the transfer
Witchfinder General has had a chequered history on VHS and DVD. Numerous versions have been doing the rounds. In the UK, 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. Finally, in September 2007, Fox put out a completely restored version in their Midnite Movies range on Region 1 DVD. This was the definitive version as all the gore and violence, originally cut by the BBFC, had been properly returned to the film and the nudity, not intended for the UK and US markets, was left out.
That 2007 restoration is the one used here for the high definition transfer. It isn't the cleanest print, with the film often showing scratches and blobs of dirt. The quality suffers a little during dissolves and transitions, produing a softer picture very momentarily as a scene switches. However, the vibrant colour of that print greatly benefits from this transfer as does the detail. In some sequences it really is very robust in both the presentation of hue and the finer details of faces, uniforms and particularly the landscape. The wooded landscapes really come alive in this transfer and John Coquillon's ravishing cinematography benefits greatly from some astonishing depth. Well worth the upgrade in my opinion.
Audio Commentary (BD exclusive) with Michael Reeves's biographer Benjamin Halligan and director Michael Armstrong. Halligan's book on Reeves is an absolute must if you haven't read it and much as he tries to analyse the film here, Armstrong, director of the controversial, and Witchfinder inspired, Mark of the Devil (1970) and a friend of Reeves, would rather spend the time speculating about his friend's state of mind and Reeves's treatment of the subject matter. I think I'd have rather had Halligan do a solo commentary even though this two hander is an interesting effort. I suggest that if you have the Fox Midnite Movies edition that you hang on to it. It has, in my opinion, a more balanced commentary from the film's 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.
The Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves (24 Mins)
An edition of Channel 4's Eurotika series from 1999. This was originally on the Prism/Optimum Region 2 edition, badly edited if I recall, and essentially covers Reeves's career with plenty of interviews, including Maslansky, Ogilvy, Waddilove and Hilary Dwyer.
Bloody Crimes: Witchcraft and Matthew Hopkins (24 Mins - BD exclusive)
Not entirely sure where Odeon sourced this (*now reliably informed that this was one of a series produced by Anglia Television in 2002) but it's an interesting, if rather salacious, romp through the history of witchcraft and the real Hopkins's crimes.
Vincent Price on Aspel & Company (10 Mins - BD exclusive)
Cropped into 16x9 this selection from Aspel's 1980s pink and pastel chat show features a brief interview with Price and, although there is no mention of Witchfinder and Aspel's questions are thoroughly anodyne, Price comes across as an absolute charmer despite looking bored to death.
Intrusion: Michael Reeves short film with optional commentary from Halligan and Armstrong. (Never before commercially released)
Alternate Scenes from the Export Version (BD exclusive)
The notorious Louis Heyward 'produced' sequences, featuring the 'tits out' versions of the tavern scenes, quite frankly make the film look like Carry On... Witchfinder General. Awful.
Theatrical Trailer and Stills Gallery
Alternate US Opening and closing Credits (BD exclusive)
Cheapskates AIP, believing they could only earn their money back by turning Reeves's film into one of their Poe adaptations, concocted this set of titles with Price narrating Poe's The Conqueror Worm (the film's alternate US title) which has absolutely nothing to do with the film itself.
Tigon / American International Pictures 1968
Odeon Entertainment / ODNBF001 / Blu-ray / Released 13 June 2011 / Approximate running time: 87 minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen / 1080p / Rating: 18 / Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English / Region Free