Thursday 14 September 2017

We Don't Go Back #63: Witchfinder General (1968), revisited

So I've been doing this project for nearly a year now, and with spin-offs and digressions I've now written 84 posts, which is crazy, but as I've said a couple of times before, there were a few early posts that needed, especially as this is going to be a book now, some revision, films that deserved a fairer shake than I'd given them before.

And I'll be honest, this is the one I haven't really been looking forward to. Just as when I started this project and my mate Ian Moore said, "You realise you're going to have to do Witchfinder General," and I sighed inwardly when I realised he was right, and I wrote a post where I literally just got the thing out of the way so I could write about films I actually, you know, liked, even now I approached Witchfinder General as if facing a chore, and that's essentially the opposite of what my year long Halloween movie marathon was ever supposed to be.

In the end, it got put on this morning because I only had a window of a couple hours between all the other stuff I was doing, and, well, it's pretty short.

A weird thing happened, though.

I suddenly found myself thinking, wait, this is much better than I thought.

Having impure thoughts.
I get the impression that Witchfinder General's star has fallen somewhat in the recent past. Now when I had my first serious relationship with horror films in my teens, it was always one of the oh-god-you-have-to-see ones, the ones you made absolutely sure you set the video for if they were on. In fact, I didn't get around to seeing it until much later, until a period in my life when horror movies and I were having a relationship break and I was Seeing Other Movies, and it made virtually no impression on me, I suppose. And then last year when I watched it again, I wasn't tremendously impressed.

I get the impression that of the Unholy Trinity, Witchfinder General is the one that gets the least discussion among the folk horror crowd. Blood on Satan's Claw is still relatively new to a lot of people, having only really had a more widespread critical appraisal in the last ten years or so. So you can still introduce it to people, and there's a sense of how-did-I-not-know-about-this with a lot of fans which is quite exciting and fun. And it's got one of those soundtracks that Launched a Thousand Acid Folk Bands (for example!). The Wicker Man meanwhile has enough pop cultural currency that you can sell any old tat you like if you write "A souvenir from Summerisle" on it. But I get the impression that there isn't so much love for Witchfinder General these days. I took a deeply unscientific Twitter poll the other week and no one was surprised when Witchfinder General came last after a couple hundred or so votes. More and more I get the impression that fans are like, "Wicker Man! Blood on Satan's Claw! Oh yeah, and I'd better mention that other film too," when asked to talk about the classics.
And then he started talking to a stoat...
And I think that part of that is down to Vincent Price, frankly. I think he symbolises everything about classic horror movies that the folk horror movement tends to eschew, the arch high gothic camp of the Corman Poe adaptations a sharp contrast to the gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails aesthetic favoured by folk horror fans. Price is high ritual when folk horror is suckling a ferret on a witch's mark; Price is grand opera, while folk horror is a song about a haunted murderer, whispered in the dark.

I love Vincent Price. The first horror film I watched, The Fall of the House of Usher, starred Price, part of a TV season of Roger Corman Poe adaptations. He was my first date with horror film, innocent and awkward and a tiny bit magical. He introduced me to horror movies. 

But there's an argument that Witchfinder General is not a film he's a good fit for, and sure, he dials his Vincent Price all the way back, turns it right down, but he's still VINCENT! PRICE! and no matter how subdued your Vincent Price might be, some serious vamping about in hat and cape is going to happen, because Vincent Price, and Wilfred Brambell going full Albert Steptoe, and that sort of camp is not what you want in your folk horror, right?

This argument is entirely wrong.
I'm not saying the chemistry is a bit lacking but...
I'm sorry, but have you even seen The Wicker Man? There's a bloke in a poloneck who looks like Andy Williams leading a bunch of rainbow coloured kids in a song about sexual reproduction while another kid goes wild on a Hanna Barbera Jew's harp. Christopher Lee puts on a dress! The Wicker Man isn't so much camp as the whole festival field, and actually you could argue that the whole thing about a bunch of happy-go-lucky singing islanders engaging in a happy conspiracy to ritual murder is sort of what makes The Wicker Man so great, and so disturbing.

Likewise, what with Blood on Satan's Claw having that Hairy Hand and Anthony Ainley bumbling over Linda Hayden dropping her kit off (oo-er), and Michelle Dotrice's comically unsuccessful advances towards Barry Andrew, you're only some less accomplished music and one appearance from Robin Askwith away from Confessions of a Witchfinder (missus).

In fact, compared to most of the films that folk horror fans dig on, you could quite easily say that the Unholy Trinity, the central texts of the subgenre, don't actually have as much in common with the rest of these films that I've been, you know, writing about, as they do with each other. They're all camp, but they're also all so much more. The Wicker Man is a masterpiece of thwarted expectations and playful threat. Blood on Satan's Claw looks and sounds like nothing else made before it.

And Witchfinder General is actually a really solid study about what evil does to you.

The prodding isn't the worst part.
It's the height of the Civil War, and here are historical figures Matthew Hopkins (VINCENT! PRICE!) and John Stearne (Robert Russell) riding around East Anglia, preying on the superstitions of the country folk by hanging buttloads of people as witches. Heroic and clean-cut Parliamentary soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) returns to Brandeston, to see the priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies) and, particularly Lowes' niece, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), with whom he is very in love.

Rev. Lowes has been accused of witchcraft, and Hopkins, arriving as Marshall leaves – in fact, Marshall even points him to the village – arrests and tortures the priest. Sarah tries to convince Hopkins to let her father go by, well, using what films in the 60s probably still called "feminine wiles" but while the wiles work, the point of them fails and Hopkins, spurned because he's always been quite clear that his intention is to take the shag and hang the man anyway (huh, at least he doesn't lie), steps up the torture and the prest, having suffered unimaginable agonies, is dunked and then hanged.

Marshall finds out, and goes AWOL to find Sarah, they have a sort of de facto wedding in a ruined chapel, but then he has to go to war.

Various stuff happens, Stearne and Hopkins catch up with Marshall before he catches up with them. Marshall turns the tables on them and, driven to the brink, takes violent, bloody revenge on the two witchfinders.

Now Matthew Hopkins and Stearne (and Cromwell, he's in it too for a couple of minutes, and he's Patrick Wymark) are real historical figures. It could be argued that having Vincent Price as a historical figure messes up people's expectations, that it makes the film inauthentic, but I don't buy that. Instantly recognisable film actors have always played historical figures without deviating terribly far from their trademark performances: having Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins is not really any different to having Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, or Michael Caine as Gonville Bromhead. Cinema audiences know this, as they have always known this. A film set in a historical period only needs to be about as authentic as it needs to be (as I've argued before, more than once), and no one in 1968 was going to see a Tigon film with a big X Certificate on it, and with flames, and mobs, and Albert Steptoe's name in a prominent spot, and Hilary Dwyer's heaving cleavage, all right there on the poster, expecting serious historical drama. In the USA, the film was marketed as Edgar Allan Poe's The Conqueror Worm (to capitalise on the popularity of Price's Poe flicks) and the poster had on it the legend: "LEAVE THE CHILDREN HOME... and if YOU are SQUEAMISH, STAY HOME WITH THEM!!!!!!"

Witchfinder General does not respect the history. Of course it doesn't. Hopkins certainly didn't end up being chopped up with an axe by one of his victims, and the "chamber of horrors shit" (as one friend described this level of historicity with regard to jurisprudence earlier today) is of course ladled on generously. No one was burnt for witchcraft in England and Wales after the 1590s, and while Hopkins was responsible for more people being executed as witches than pretty much all the rest of the preceding couple of centuries, he certainly didn't do the stuff he does in the film with quite as much glee.
I hold all human life dearly... especially my own.
Witchfinder General is nasty and exploitative, with some nauseating acts of torture and violence, mostly directed at helpless women (but also at some helpless men). Still, it's instructive to compare it to the very similar cash-in that followed in the wake of its success, Cry of the Banshee, which is a much more typical example of the horror cinema of the era. Stearne gets his jollies from hurting women, so we see lots of women hurt and one memorable burning. But we don't see women stripped for the hell of it, like in Cry of the Banshee, and while there are nude breasts, because it is a late 60s British shocker, and there will be breasts, the film's topless women are generally enjoying being topless, so, y'know, it could be worse.

What's interesting about that is that while Witchfinder General is all too keen to show this happening, unlike films like Cry of the Banshee, or, for that matter Blood on Satan's Claw, everything the film shows, even the nasty bits, is there to advance the plot. The torture is probably a little too lovingly detailed, but it has consequences. So a woman gets burned to death and there's this guy who cries out her name, and later on that guy reappears and tries to attack Hopkins, only to be gunned down, but then he's found by Marshall's pal Swallow (Nicky Henson) and the dying man tells Swallow where Hopkins is. Everything follows, and it's interesting that the scenes cut from the original theatrical version are entirely extra bits cut from the torture sequences. Hardly anything from the scenes restored to the DVD really needed to be restored for the sake of storytelling.

There is this one bit of really bad editing, where Marshall is tied with his hands over his head, and Stearne is advancing on him, except there's a commotion outside, because the rescue is on its way, and Marshall pulls himself up on the rope, and kicks Stearne to the ground, and then in the very next shot, inexplicably untied, he's able to leap forward and stamp on Stearne's face, and I rewound that half a dozen times to make sure I hadn't missed something, but that's the only place where the storytelling falls apart.

Everything in Witchfinder General advances the story. The film has no dead weight, no loose ends. Every plot decision is paid off. For example, Marshall saves his officer's life; later on, the officer will spare him a court martial for going AWOL. Swallow tries to requisition Hopkins and Stearne's horses, and they don't play along, and it ends in violence and in Stearne being abandoned by Hopkins, and this gives Swallow a reason to help out Marshall, and creates conflict between Stearne and Hopkins.
OK, anyone got a match?
It works. It holds together tightly, and everything is there to get across its central theme, which is the contagion of evil, and particularly the way that decent, heroic Marshall gradually descends to the state of howling madman, how he becomes willing to break rules, break laws and even attack otherwise innocent people to get his man, so that when driven mad by agony, he can set to Hopkins with an axe, and scream blue murder at Swallow who arrives and puts Hopkins out of his misery with a bullet. The film ends in madness and death, but then everything Hopkins touches turns to evil.

He preys, as the film itself says in its opening voiceover, on superstition, and turns otherwise decent people into the sort of people who laugh at women screaming in agony, who enthusiastically drown people on the ends of ropes. The evil of the countryside is there to begin with, but it's dormant, and Hopkins, who Price makes a darkly numinous figure, brings out the very worst in people while all the time refusing to admit it in himself. He's rigid, not ashamed to take up a vulnerable young woman's offer of sex, but nonetheless incorruptible in his corruption. You never really see what drives him. Stearne is just a sadist; Hopkins is worse than that: he has conviction, conviction in his own self, in his profit. He is an opportunist, with his eye on the main chance, and he's a sociopath who doesn't care if people die, even his associates, if it will profit him. He's a monster, but worse than that, he's a monster who makes evil grow. He's a monster who drags everyone down to his level.