Friday, October 15, 2010

30 Days of Fright - 14: Witchfinder General

When out and about and on the look-out for shits and giggles, manys a young lad turns to shouting at passers-by while leaning out the window of a moving car. This trend can be traced back to the cult movie Withnail & I, where the manic drunkard Withnail shouts at some schoolgirls as he and his chum flee London in a battered Jag. On that occassion Withnail chose to shout the word “scrubbers”, a simple but effective choice. When, like Withnail, I’m leaning out of a car window twisted on cheap booze, I like to go old school (really old school) and shout “Witch!!!!!” in an accusatory manner at random strangers.

Set in England in 1644 during the height of the Civil War, Witchfinder General (1968) tells the fictionalised story of the real-life Matthew Hopkins as he plied his trade seeking out witches, mostly young women, who had been accused by members of their local communities on trumped up charges, sometimes related to the state of affairs in the country but mostly for petty personal reasons. Hopkins and his assistant Stearne go from town to town and charge a hefty fee to torture a confession out of the nominated victim and then perform the execution, all under the auspices of the barely functioning and wildly corrupt legal system.

Hopkins is summoned to a town where the locals have taken a dislike to a local Priest, who they’ve labelled a dirty papist. The priest in question has a young niece who has just gotten engaged to a soldier in the parliamentarian army. Hopkins arrives and has the Priest tortured but despite the ordeal he doesn’t confess. In an attempt to save her uncle, the niece Sarah, offers herself to Hopkins. The witchfinder uses Sarah but still proceeds to execute her uncle.

Sarah’s fiancĂ© returns to the town after hearing that there’d been a spot of bother with witches and finds his beloved living in terror and shame having effectively been raped by Hopkins and actually raped by his assistant. Sarah’s boyfriend, Richard, decides to cut out the middle man and marries Sarah on the spot, performing the ceremony himself. Once wed, Richard swears revenge on Hopkins and goes in search of the Witchfinder and his helper, endangering himself and his new wife as the country tears itself apart around them.

Matthew Hopkins fresh from a double execution (his barber and his tailor)

Witchfinder General is a great horror film, made in a time where new boundaries in all forms of art were being explored, and depicting a time where political and religious ideas were being expanded too. As a film Witchfinder attracted a lot of controversy when it was released as it’s basically 1960’s torture porn where people are beaten up, stabbed, and attacked with sharp things that have been left in the fire, in order to get false confessions out of them so that they could be executed painfully for a bit of entertainment in the town square. One defense of this material is that it’s depicting what actually happened at the time, which is perhaps a bit of a weak excuse for gratuitous violence. However, to modern audiences the content of Witchfinder is a bit tame, so this is no longer an issue.

Vincent Price as Hopkins would have raised a few eyebrows too, seeing as Hopkins was a dyed in the wool English psycho and Price was a dyed in the wool creepy American weirdo. But Price in the title role works so well it’s hard to believe. The first time he opens his mouth in the picture is a little odd, as his voice was so distinctive, but after a while it seems right that Hopkins is portrayed by someone so radically different from the rest of the cast. Price also played the part very seriously and not with his trademark semi-comedic manner, and this just made the whole thing perfectly creepy. The rest of the cast, primarily Ian Ogilvy as Richard, Hilary Dwyer as Sarah are excellent, with Ogilvy as the man out for a little revenge really brilliant.

There’s little point discussing the technical aspects of the production as it was made in 1968 so a lot is left to the imagination, but one point I noticed that was really well handled was the lighting, especially in scenes that are supposed to be by candlelight, which are moody and, more to the point, dark.

Two Thumbs Up for Witchfinder General

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