OCTOBER 5, 2011
As with Black Death, Witchfinder General isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, but is actually more terrifying than most movies when you consider that the panicked, senseless killings depicted in the film occurred for real. The character Vincent Price plays was a real guy named Matthew Hopkins who would accuse people of being witches/Satanists more or less at random and kill them in 17th century England, before finally being exposed and “fired”. In real life he died in his sleep; the movie gives his character a far more fitting denouement.
Unlike Black Death, however, there isn’t a lot of moral ambiguity for our hero to deal with – he’s actually kind of a generic protagonist for the most part. As with just about any monster movie, he is in love with a girl and then is forced to rescue her from the clutches of evil, just in this case it’s a power-mad “Witchfinder” instead of Dracula or whoever. The middle act of the film is a bit repetitive as he seemingly spends most of it on his horse riding back and forth between the town where things are going down and other towns where people tell him what is going down. His revenge is limited to two people (Price and another guy on Price’s “team”), so there’s not a lot of action until the end either – at least if there were 4-5 guys we could have a fight every 10-15 minutes.
Otherwise this is pretty dang good stuff. I like that AIP was doing something different (even if they quite ridiculously changed the name and added some bookending narration to tie it into their Poe series), and I REALLY liked Price’s performance. He is truly evil here, without a shred of his usual charm or even sometimes campy approach to playing villains, and manages to go through the entire film without ever really chewing the scenery. The DVD’s bonus features (a commentary and a retrospective) are filled with stories about how he didn’t get along with director Michael Reeves (who wanted Donald Pleasence for the role – AIP demanded Price be the star instead), but it paid off – this is one of his best ever performances.
I also liked the “deep” period setting; while just about every Price film takes place in the past, it’s usually the 19th century or so; this goes back 350 years from its production. So everyone rides horses, their guns can only hold one round, and Price is able to do what he does because there’s no way for anyone to send a telegram about his nonsense. And it’s also quite gory for a film produced in the 60s; the immolation near the end is pretty gruesome, as is an axe murder in the climax. The fake blood is silly looking, but it’s easy to see why the censors and critics were so taken aback by the film when it was released (of course, it’s tame by today’s standards).
Plus, again, it’s just different. I love when I watch a movie and have no idea what genre tags to put in - as long as the movie entertains and intrigues, I could care less if it “fits” anywhere. There are no attempts to make it more like a traditional horror film (Price barely even puts up a fight at the end), and the attention to character and the ideas about the nature of violence are far more interesting than seeing Price running around yet another burning mansion. There aren’t even really any scares – the concept alone provides the horror. I’m actually surprised there aren’t more films about this period in history, or this character (going by IMDb’s “movie connections”, there doesn’t seem to be a single other film about Hopkins, horror or otherwise) – this is a very loose retelling of the events; surely a more factual account would be just as if not more interesting. Indeed, one major change is that Hopkins didn’t even live to be 30, whereas Price was in his 50s at the time of filming. So a new film with a guy in the right age group (there are no photos of him, obviously – so let’s just say Michael Fassbender should play him, as he’s good at being evil but still a compelling lead) would be very appealing to me, even if they dropped any pretense of it being a “horror” film. They could/should also drop the rather bland “Hero rescuing his girl” subplot, which wraps up nicely (read: it’s a downer) but takes time away from the far more interesting Hopkins.
As mentioned, the disc has a commentary track, featuring Ian Oglivy (the hero), one of the producers, and some fan/journalist who starts off the track by describing the on-screen action in heavy detail, which made me wonder if I had turned on one of those descriptive video tracks for blind people. It’s a fun track, they talk about Price and Reeves on-set quarrels (one anecdote about a fake ax is particularly amazing), and also point out a few minor anachronistic mistakes and things of that nature. The retrospective is half about the movie, half about Reeves himself, who sadly passed away not long after this movie was completed (accidental overdose of sleeping pills) and thus never completed another feature, which is a shame as anyone as young as he was (only 25) that could stand up to Price is definitely a unique talent. It should also be noted that the film also has the original (and quite good) soundtrack restored; apparently the US releases always had some replacement synth score that was universally described as awful.
So obviously it’s a must see for Price fans, and even though it’s inaccurate, also one of the few horror films that can also appeal to history buffs, as they only took the usual liberties instead of using the story as a springboard for something a little more conventional. Indeed, I actually kept expecting someone to turn into a witch, but they keep it grounded throughout. Well played!
What say you?