Witchfinder General
DVD released: September 1, 2003.
Approximate running time:
82 Minutes
Aspect Ratio:
1.85.1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating:
18UK
Sound:
Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
DVD Release:
Prism Leisure
Region Coding:
Region 0 PAL
Retail Price:
£5.99


Reviewed by:
Ian Jane on October 6, 2003
 
Quick links: [video] [audio] [extras] [overall]
The Film

Released in North America by AIP re-titled as Conqueror Worm (probably to cash in on the success of the Corman/Price Poe films), Michael Reeves Witchfinder General has recently been re-released in the United Kingdom uncut and at a more than reasonably price (no pun intended). 

The story is not an overly complicated one. The immortal Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a former lawyer and self-appointed (?) witch hunter who operated around Suffolk and Essex during the English Civil War that waged from 1644 to 1646. Hopkins was a rather despicable man responsible for the deaths of twenty three people – nineteen of whom were accused witches and hanged for their crimes against God, and four others who died in prison. 

When Hopkins hears word of a Catholic priest named John Lowes (Rupert Davies of The Oblong Box) who has been know to associate with Satan, he and his assistant, Stearne (played by Robert Russell) arrive on his doorstep to accuse him, and a few of the local women, of witchcraft. Lowe’s beautiful niece, Sarah, agrees to sleep with Hopkins in exchange for sparing her uncle’s life, but things don’t go as planned and when Hopkins leaves town, Stearne ends up raping her. 

Hopkins returns and has Father Lowe put to death despite his promise to Sarah, and when her fiancé, Richard (Ian Ogilvy who had worked with Reeves a year prior in The Sorcerers) arrives he swears he will send Hopkins to find true justice at the hands of God and vows to kill him no matter what it takes. 

Unfortunately for Richard, Hopkins is as smart as he is sinister, and he and Stearne think to kidnap Sarah in order to drag a false confession out of Richard so that they can legally execute him for witchcraft. 

Price turns in an excellent performance as Hopkins, eschewing all sense of camp in favor of a very serious turn as the self-righteous witch hunter. He’s menacing, contemptuous, and perfect in the role, and comes quite close to literally defining evil. Not only does his character do horrible things, but he does it in the name of his religion (an all to common occurrence throughout history), when in fact it is nothing more than an excuse for a perverted sadistic man in a position of some power to inflict his will upon the populace of the time. 

Those expecting the camp appeal or the tongue in cheek style horror movies that Price is oft times synonymous with may be surprised to find Witchfinder General contains some powerfully and disturbing interrogation scenes that are really nothing more than torture scenarios, some of which are quite gruesome. In the context of the film and its central titular character though, it makes sense that they be there and they do add a sense of dread to the film that it otherwise would not have had. 

Obviously, like in most films, some liberties were taken with the actual facts behind the Matthew Hopkins escapades. He wasn’t killed by a vengeful soldier but was in fact put to one of his own tests by irate townsfolk who had become sick of his behavior. Unluckily for him, and quite ironically, he floated, and therefore must have rejected his baptism, so he was hung for witchcraft.

Overall, the film is a fascinating look at a strange time in English history with solid performances and an important, if blatantly obvious, socio-political message that is just as important today as it was in the day the events took place.





Video 2.5/5
While it’s nice to see the film presented in it’s original aspect ratio and enhanced for anamorphic television sets, I’m sad to report that the movie itself doesn’t look so hot. Most of the daytime scenes are fine but when things get darker, the transfer is much too dark and it’s hard to make out what’s going on. There is a moderate amount of print damage evident throughout the running time, though none of it is of major consequence. The biggest problem with the presentation is that the scenes that were removed from the film as required by the BBFC back in 1968 have been reinserted from what is obviously a VHS tape, and one of dubious quality. It proves to be quite distracting and there is a very noticeable difference in quality during these scenes. Likewise, the editing done to make this happen is a little bit sloppy and there are a couple of spots where brief snippets of audio repeats itself because of the timing involved in inserting the previously cut footage. Also worth noting - the DVD does give you the option of watching the cut version without the inserted video footage.



Audio 2.5/5
The audio is given the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono treatment and while for the most part the dialogue is reasonably clear and easy to understand, there are a few spots where the soundtrack does overshadow what is being said on screen, making it a bit difficult to comprehend those scenes. There is also the aforementioned repetition of audio snippets caused by the insertion of the deleted footage. Minimal hiss and distortion are present in a couple of spots, but overall, the track is serviceable.


Extras 3.5/5

A few choice supplements are included on the disc. First up is the trailer for Witchfinder General, as well as for The Sorcerers (one of Reeves’ earlier films). There is also a video from the band Cathedral for their song, Matthew Hopkins, which is pretty corny. The stills gallery is quite impressive, however, as it seems to have included every piece of promotional art available and then some. It’s set to music and plays like a slide show and it runs for about eleven minutes. 

Filmographies for the key cast and crewmembers are included on the disc as well, but the real treat for fans is the twenty-two minute documentary on the films director, Michael Reeves, entitled Blood Beast: The Films Of Michael Reeves. Produced for British television in 1999 and featuring interview with an assortment of people who both knew and worked with the enigmatic director, it’s an interesting look at a talent that was never really given it’s chance to come to fruition, as the young director died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-five. 

The entire package is wrapped up in some great animated menus with voice over clips from Price running over top of them, and the disc also includes the requisite scene selection and some production notes as well. It would have been nice if they’d have been able to include the alternate Conqueror Worm opening and closing bits, which featured Price reading Poe’s poem, but that didn’t happen.



Overall 3/5
Witchfinder General finds Price giving one of his finest performances. It’s unfortunate that the audio and video weren’t better on the DVD, but the extras are nice and the film is totally uncut. This isn’t the perfect presentation, not by a long shot, but it will do until MGM or someone else gives the film the treatment it deserves, and the low selling price of the re-release make this an easy recommendation.

To order this disc, check out www.xploitedcinema.com


Film Rating DVD Rating
Director: Michael Reeves
Film:

Writers: Tom Baker, Ronald Bassett
Video:

Released: 1968
Audio:

Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Heath, Robert Russell
Extras:

Overall:

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