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2011.29: Witchfinder General (1968) *** June 25, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , trackback

Dir. Michael Reeves, 90 mins, TV Transmission.

This is a fascinating film, a proper ‘Horror’ film in a similar vein to the original The Wicker Man from the same period (what on earth happened to UK horror in the years since?). I’d never seen it before, expecting something in the Hammer Horror vein, so was very surprised by how it turned out to be rather different. While there is some gore and flesh here, really the film is more a chilling examination of ignorance and mans inhmanity to his common man.

The story of the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, who during the English Civil War found monetary profit by condemning and executing some 200+ ‘witches’ is fairly well known, and while there is actually little real evidence, the events undoubtedly occurred. Hopkins final fate seems to be uncertain, and the film wisely uses this to portray the events leading up to Hopkins death, towards the end of his crusade, so while much of it is conjecture and fiction, it is grounded in real historical events. 

Although hampered by evident budget constraints, the film is very effective, with lush location filming (spoilt somewhat by obvious day-for-night shooting), fine performances and a remarkable pastoral score. I don’t want to labour the point as I’ve mentioned it before, but many times it brought to my mind The Wicker Man in it’s sense of mood and style. It also reminded me of the old ’sixties tv serial The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe, somehow- I think that may have been due to the juxtaposition of the visuals and the music, which is very fine.

Vincent Price, minus his usual theatrics, is cold and menacing here with real presence - I was surprised how effective his subdued performance here is. Perhaps even more of a surprise is Ian Ogilvy, always to me a reminder of ITV’s slightly camp (at least as I remember it) remake of The Saint, who really shines in his role of the vengeful hero here, demonstrating an ability I’d have thought beyond him, frankly. Hilary Dwyer is wonderful as Ogilvy’s doomed fiancee. At the start she is your quintessential beautiful English rose not averse to using her womanly charms, and by films end she’s a lunatic, driven mad by her experiences.

Much like, again, The Wicker Man (sorry), this film has a rather bleak ending, in some ways akin to something Lovecraft might have wrote, madness falling upon those that survive the bloody denouement. I’m only surprised someone hasn’t noticed how powerful this film is and how rich its subject-matter is, and commenced a remake. It almost seems inevitable, just amazing that it hasn’t happened already.


1. badblokebob - June 25, 2011

I think if this was either American or in a foreign language, a US-produced remake would be inevitable. As a cult British film, it’s probably slipped through the cracks.

For now, at least — with Hammer recently revived, who knows what they’ll attempt? With a strong directorial voice at the helm it might even be worth watching, but I rather expect it would be smartened up and glossy, and lose the rawness and roughness which makes the original so effective.

2. Matthew McKinnon again - June 26, 2011

@ BadBlokeBob:
Oh, don’t be too sure… ‘The Wicker Man’ was the very definition of a cult British film, and look what happened to that.
And ‘The Prisoner’…
And my wife picked up the original ‘Soon The Darkness’ for me from my Amazon wishlist, as I was quite keen to see it, and before I’ve even had a chance to pop it in the player, there’s a glossy remake out.
I have a feeling we might get a new ‘WFG’ and a new ‘Don’t Look Now’ before this decade is out.

Oddly, I’ve never connected with ‘WFG’ as much as other people. I might use this Blu-Ray as an opportunity to try it again.

3. ghostof82 - June 28, 2011

Well I’m loathe to encourage remakes as yes, they are indeed usually inferior, but in the case of WFG, well, one of the film’s limitating factors is certainly its budget. A remake could address that. A REALLY interesting remake would be one with Terrance Mallick at the helm. Imagine something like that, coldly beautiful to look at and full of philosphical subtext re: man’s inhumanity to man? Would be fascinating.

4. badblokebob - June 28, 2011

The recent Wicker Man and Prisoner remakes slipped my mind when I commented — I’m sure no one will blame me for that! Now you mention it, Matthew, I’m a little surprised they’ve not already re-done Don’t Look Now.

I believe a good many films could be remade well, given the right creative teams, it’s just that they’re almost exclusively done for moneygrabbing reasons by Hollywood execs who hire someone cheap to churn out something cheap to maximise profit on a known property. That said, not even respected filmmakers can guarantee a successful remake — not that I’ve seen either version, but criticism of the Coens’ Ladykillers springs to mind.

5. Matthew McKinnon again - June 30, 2011

And when they* do remake “Don’t Look Now”, I guarantee it will have the following:

A) less sex
B) more gore: bodies of the other victims being discovered here and there in Venice, cut to John and Laura reading about it in the local papers.
C) shaky/glitchy-cam first person visions and premonitions, ie Laura will be (more) psychic.

My money’s on the table. I wonder what sports ad the director-to-be is working on at the moment?

*’They’, ‘them’, the faceless remake hacks.

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