Saturday, 30 June 2012
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
This film rises above the generic British horror films of the sixties and early seventies as a remarkably realistic excursion into the menacingly corrupt world of the 17th Century. The sheer drive of the protagonist’s vengeance, once confronted personally with the cruelty of Matthew Hopkins compels our attention well into the second half, and it is a credit to Michael Reeves for allowing us little time to consider the limited budget. Instead, the scope of the film takes us into beautiful and sadistic regions of our own countryside and its cruel history. The contrast of picturesque beauty and horror was highly individual.
Reeves set his story amidst the quietude of East Anglia and Suffolk locations. Using this real backdrop, the images of witch-burning and hanging are even more arresting against the idyllic serenity. Paul Ferris added more layers of feeling with his highly emotive and quite exquisite score, allowing us to understand the actions of the central characters, represented as somewhat remote but in perfect harmony with the period. This is not to say the characters do not work - we feel concern for the young lovers and their plight.
Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, completing the strong dramatic unity of opposites. This must be one of the most villainous performances in cinema. Reeves struggled with Price, constantly persuading him to underplay the overtly voyeuristic and sadistic aspects of his character. I think Price manages to avoid the clichéd ‘evil’ style of performance which marred many contemporary horror films of the time, and clearly communicates to the viewer his psychopathic need for self-preservation. He dominates the film, casting an inescapable shadow over the young couple’s world. It is a foreboding presence. His demonstrations of greed and aloofness are well judged, and his teasing thuggish associate reminds us how much Hopkins actually enjoys his work.
The interiors are brilliantly atmospheric, especially the finale in the flame-lit dungeon. The skilfully choreographed torture and action scenes spare us none of the indignity of violence and death. John Coquillon’s photography faithfully recreates a sense of rural menace, from the effectively composed shots of the castle in the evening light to the engulfing darkness along the country lanes at night.
The film’s narrative builds to an internal, hellish climax. Price and Ian Ogilvy, the two leads, seem to be fused together as the final vengeful blows are delivered. As the dull hacking sounds of one man destroying another resound throughout the winding stairwells, Reeves manages to express man’s animalistic nature, reducing another human form to a butchered object. Hopkins used cruelty to reign over the fearful villagers and we understand that his terror and violence is infectious, and will come again and again. By focussing on the imagery of fire, damaged bodies, and harrowing human pain (accompanied by the sounds of crackling and screaming) Reeves confidently leads us into the same traps which await the central characters. We witness the much-needed final act of vengeance, but we are also forced to dwell on the tortured wife’s lingering cry of madness, echoing over the final images. The film vividly uncovers a hidden neurosis inside all the main characters.