Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #6: Witchfinder General (1968)

A gem of a film based loosely on the life of the Witchfinder General, one Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer turned witch-hunter during the tumultuous upheaval of Cromwell's revolution. Hopkins roved from village to village exploiting the superstitious for good coin by inflicting cruel witch-finding tests upon anyone suspected of being a witch. So basically anyone kind of weird. Or anyone people just didn't like.

In the role of Hopkins is the inimitable Vincent Price. Now, this film gave him his 75th role, and by this point Price had understandably been coasting through his horror roles like a sleeping Cthulu through the epochs, but two things now awakened him:

1. The shock of having a director like Michael Reeves, who had wanted Donald Pleasence in the role and was furious over the studio's insistence on Price. Reeves refused to speak directly to him the first day, and when Price fell from his horse, reportedly didn't even check to see if the man was alright.

2. The level of the crew's competency was something Price hadn't expected. Everyone on set was dead-serious about making a good film, and the majority of the cast seemed to be delivering the kind of performances he could actually work with.

These two things sobered Price, and later, he conceded that his own performance in the film was probably the best of his horror career. His Witchfinder General possesses a quiet belligerence made more menacing by an aloof, emotional disconnection. That disconnection doesn't seem lazy, though. It seems carefully set, and most of it comes off through his enigmatic stares.

The level of torture and violence that initially got this film banned in places, by today's standards, manages to be bloody without being gory, and fiercely uncomfortable instead of indulgent. The watershed Bonnie and Clyde was released just a year earlier, and the kind of screen violence that was emerging held a new potency. Witchfinder General could actually be considered England's Bonnie and Clyde, as both pushed the boundaries and ended off on a violent down-note. Reeves ended WG with an improvised and unnerving final sequence that will ring in my memory for some time.

So: A fluid and stylish revenge tale with Price back in action. Check it out.

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