Thirty years of horror: Witchfinder General (1968)

Chris: Witchfinder General is a sprawling, messy, clumsy, overreaching mess of a movie. In any conventional sense, it isn’t a horror film, either. I suspect that any moment Tom will be along to rip this odd, awkward movie to shreds, as he should. By empirical standards, this is a terrible movie. But I love it.

After the jump, you rang?

Tom: Witchfinder General is like English food. Way too much ham and not enough craft. The Italians would never do something this tasteless and rote. Bad lighting (candles as spotlights?), no sense of style (what a showcase for sturdy tripods!), ridiculous costumes (I’ve seen — and worn! — better outfits in community theater), and conveniently overblown mustache twirling performances (I have lost whatever fascination I had for Vincent Price after Tomb of Ligeia). This is just a revenge movie. It’s Death Wish as a bodice-ripping period piece, from before there was a name for torture porn or a ratings system that would allow it.

Here’s the movie’s idea of a candlelight dinner:

Chris: Witchfinder General was the final film made by 25-year-old British auteur Michael Reeves before his death by accidental overdose. The movie reflects his sense of clumsy enthusiasm from start to finish. I get the impression that Reeves had a brilliant vision of how he wanted his film to turn out, and almost no idea of how to actually execute it. The film, set during the witch trial inquisitions of the English civil war, is a convoluted mess. The tone zips from humor to anger to fear and to absolute loathing of our villains. Guys shoot flintlock pistols with the kind of accuracy normally reserved for marine snipers. Odd members of the cast wander in for one-off scenes that exist as massive plot contrivances to move the creaking story forward to a conclusion we’ve already guessed at in the first 15 minutes. Camera work unworthy of second year film students is exacerbated by having to watch this on DVD as a “Director’s Cut” that adds unnecessary, blurry footage. Notably, nothing that happens in the movie is particularly scary, nor is it meant to be. This really isn’t horror at all (although it certainly is marketed as such). For 80 of the 85 minute running time it is absolutely the revenge movie Tom thinks it is.

For me, though, that’s almost enough. I totally bought into Vincent Price as the Witchfinder, and I think Christopher Guest did too. If you’ve ever wondered what an entire movie of the six-fingered Count Rugen from Princess Bride would be like, well, here you go. I also thought our star-crossed hero (Ian Ogilvy) and heroine (the luminous Hilary Dwyer) were a delight; that goes especially for Miss Dwyer, whom I’m frankly smitten by. If neither are particularly gifted thespians, they’re both so earnest about delivering their lines that I found myself totally invested in their characters

As I watched this,I found myself pulled in despite knowing better. Tom, you mention the lighting, and that’s especially laughable. It’s fairly clear neither Reeves or his cinematographer had the slightest notion what a light meter was for. Yet despite numerous outdoor scenes where the natural lighting is so dark we can barely make out anything happening, there are a few beautiful scenes where the silhouettes shot against the sunset are magnificent.

Then there’s the music. Have I mentioned that yet? Paul Ferris’ score for the film is masterful, sounding like what you’d get if Ennio Morricone was a member of Fairport Convention. As stupid as it sounds, the scenes where brave Richard Marshall rides pell mell through the East Anglia countryside to save his girl, all set to Ferris’ stirring music, could’ve gone on much longer and kept me happy.

None of those things would have truly won me over completely though. What elevates Witchfinder General was the last five minutes of the film. As I mentioned, we know how this is all going to go down almost from the very beginning of the movie. We’ve seen it a thousand times, and the movie telegraphs it all. Richard will rescue his girl and kill the Witchfinder and his henchman, Then he and Sarah will hold one another tight in a loving “We’re alive, let’s kiss” embrace as the music swells to the foreground one final time.

That’s not what happens. Reeves lets no one have what they want in the movie. Nothing that happens is in any way a happy ending. The vengeance payoff rings hollow however you look at it. We’re shocked by Richard’s savagery, but then honestly empathize with his distress at having the coup-de-grace denied. More shattering is how things go with Sarah on the slab. Unlike a good revenge/salvation movie, she hasn’t been saved or avenged at all. She’s broken. Her screams are awful, absolutely chillingly awful, and they repeat and repeat and repeat as if Dwyer is shrieking herself hoarse. They go on so long we can hear them in the background as the final credits roll, and that’s just about the most messed up thing ever. The misdirection surprised me; I didn’t see it coming at all. It completely worked for me.

I think what attracts me to this movie so much is that sense of accidental genius at work. I don’t know if Reeves meant to misdirect me. I don’t know if he knew there were jarring tonal shifts in his film. I have no idea what he was thinking lighting an interior evening scene only with candles. It all feels like the work of a crazy person, but also unified and clearly the work of a very singular and unique madman. As a music fan, Reeves’ work reminds me of nothing so much as Brian Wilson’s overbearing, excessive musical visions for making post-Pet Sounds records.

Tom: I’d rather be watching something more wholesomely lurid like Twins of Evil. Or, for a genuinely disturbing and shrewdly inverted treatment of the subject matter, The Devils, a movie where Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, and director Ken Russell pull out all the stops. Or why not just cut to the chase and watch the “she turned me into a newt” skit from Holy Grail?

Chris: Hey! We do get to see that whole trial by drowning thing played out in no small amount of detail. Come on, that scene was great!

Tom: I just feel a torture procedural needs some sort of larger meaning or context, or at least more of a horror bent. I did enjoy the historical backdrop of the witchfinder, his toadie, and the avenging soldier having to navigate the war between Cromwell and the Royalists. But for a revenge drama that touches on issues of faith and honor and horrible things being done to women, Ingmar Bergman pretty much closed that book in 1960 with Virgin Spring.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)