Saturday, December 2, 2006

Civil Warlock

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)

WITCHFINDER GENERAL was released as THE CONQUERER WORM in the United States, as illustrated by Midnite Movies’ busy DVD case art. AIP had Vincent Price recite Poe’s poem The Conqueror Worm over the credits, in the aim to cash-in on their success with the Roger Corman pictures (note the totally redundant Pendulum motif).

WITH the exception of PEEPING TOM (1960), no British horror film carries more critical baggage than WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Dubbed "the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I’ve seen" by Alan Bennett, rarely has movie violence been used so legitimately. Co-produced by Tigon – British exploitation’s most endearingly downmarket film company - and AIP, only Michael Armstrong’s MARK OF THE DEVIL (1969) suggests the same rural cruelty in the witch-torturing subgenera. Set in pastoral East Anglia during the Civil War between Cromwell's Roundheads and King Charles's Cavaliers, Vincent Price stars as the pious opportunist Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed General who profited from the chaos by ‘discovering’ witches among the peasantry. The film has long been a cult item, in part because its talented 25-year-old director, Michael Reeves, died of an accidental barbiturates overdose shortly following release, but mainly because it is an extraordinarily bleak story of political evil.

Often described as a Suffolk Western, the film has a robust autumnal quality that perfectly suits its setting, and cinematically it bears the mark of the late 1960s - there's an overabundance of zooms, and an easy reliance on the brutality of brightly hued gore. The white-gloved Witchfinder is both implacable and terrifying, a distillation which is simultaneously unfathomable and, sadly, recognisable. With the character of Hopkins at its centre, WITCHFINDER GENERAL takes a despairing view of the human condition every bit as gruelling as the outbursts of violence which punctuate it. Reeves shows bloodshed as a communicable disease, engulfing everyone from young and old; when Roundhead Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) tackles brutal henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell), and then hacks Hopkins to death with an axe, his initial boyish likeability seems like a forlorn memory.

The sinister figure of Matthew Hopkins casts a long shadow over horror fiction, folklore and history.

Reeves’ reputation quickened almost immediately after his death. Whether he was cinema’s Keats or its Ian Curtis, we are, however, in the same light-constricted forests, and under the low thatched ceilings, that are forever Terence Fisher’s Slavic Europe. Yet WITCHFINDER GENERAL equates the English Civil War with the culture clashes of the 1960s. Witchfinders are allowed to call victims’ perpetrators as part of a moral vacuum that exists on the ungoverned fringes of any unrest. Loitering military bands, and forgotten human carcasses decaying in the bracken, are both social consequences in the breakdown of the system, allowing starvation and criminal behaviour. There is no Evil Incarnate, only perpetual corruption.

No matter how well the director captures the atmosphere of 17th century religious upheaval and moral hysteria, the real Hopkins – and the social context in which he operated – remain less well known. Qualifying his actions through religion, and aided by Stearne’s boiling Puritan blood, between 1645 and 1647 it is suspected that Hopkins was directly or indirectly associated with as many as 200 executions - if not by his direct "examinations", then by his murderous, and seemingly omnipotent influence. It can be said that Stearne was the adrenalin of Hopkins, but not the greed. One of the most significant contributions to the legend was Ronald Bassett’s Witch-finder General (1966), a novel which posed as source material for the film, where Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged Ipswich lawyer who reinvents himself as "a black-winged Attila, leaving behind him a trail of gibbet-hung corpses." But Hopkins was not so much the leader of the movement as an adjutant. It took a lot of people to hang a witch – witnesses, magistrates, clerks, executioners et al – so the witchfinder gave confidence to act. To call Hopkins a vindictive monster is to refuse to understand the hazardous potential of his followers; the same could be said about Hitler and Osama-bin-Laden. It was only after his death that people slowly began to see the error of their ways. The undertones of misery and guilt pushed the Hopkins persona into a legendary rather than historic mindset; children’s fairy tales would take on characters with tall buckled hats, knee-length boots and long knotted staffs, manifesting into an incubus. One could even suggest that the Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann) in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) has something of Hopkins about him.

In one of his most humourless roles, Vincent Price was never better as the screen Hopkins.

Price classically renders Hopkins here, romanticising the events around the character, but WITCHFINDER GENERAL is extremely accurate in its interpretation of the accusation, torture and forced confession. The General is unshakeably matter-of-fact as he hangs, drowns, burns and has needles pushed into his victims, his face and voice convey comparatively little, even the sexual subtext implied by his interest in Sara (Hilary Dwyer). Price’s performance is not so much restrained but stone cold, and it can be argued that Peter Cushing’s interpretation of the Hopkins character, as Gustav Weil in Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL (1972), is closer to the real-life person. Price, by 1968, was inseparable from carnival-host and Freudian-camp. Reeves, who had wanted the tyrant to be played by Donald Pleasence, felt that Price’s tongue-in-cheek approach to horror was wrong for the role. Exactly how Reeves achieved this radical shift in the actor’s tone is now legend. Clearly, he and his star did not get along, but the friction is attributed to various causes. One publicity photo taken on set shows the two antagonists together - Price in full costume clad in black, hunched over and solemn, and Reeves in a white polo-neck facing in the opposite direction - the impression is of two figures worlds apart.