Thursday, 5 March 2009


This Sunday at 3.30pm (late enough for you to digest your food, but not so late as you'll be out cold on the sofa), down in the basement of THE HOURGLASS (damn fine food and damn fine drinks - they've got Leffe on tap), The Hidden Cinema will be screening...

Dir: Michael Reeves & Piers Haggard
UK 1968 & 1971

I’m not going to tell you that Witchfinder General is a masterpiece. It isn’t. Ask Ian Ogilvy, its star and close friend of its director Michael Reeves.

What it is, however, is a raw, brutal, angry film made by a young filmmaker of enormous talent who was really finding his feet. Coming after The Sorcerers (in some ways a better, more unusual movie), Witchfinder General was about to put young Michael Reeves (then only 25 years old) on the map.

And then he died.

Barbituates overdose. He might have made the big time. His talent was so evident on screen; he achieved so much with so little, by the sheer nerve and confidence of his work. He learned a lot from Don Siegel (Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, Dirty Harry, The Beguiled – a weird film with Clint Eastwood that we really should show here), and has some affinity with Sam Peckinpah. But his touch, and his tone, his take on things, was uniquely British, and acutely of his time and, perhaps, beyond it.

Witchfinder grabs you by the throat right from the start, as a woman is dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows and the stool kicked out from under her. To some degree, you’re expecting that. The film’s reputation precedes it, and it’s a horror film after all. What you’re not expecting is the cinematography, the importance of the English landscape, and how well it’s shot. The cinematographer is John Coquillon, who would later work with Sam Peckinpah on Straw Dogs and Pat Garret & Billy The Kid; the textures and the lighting are the same, at once natural and tangible, and yet somehow a little faded, wistful. Reeves and Coquillon quite consciously take Witchfinder General and turn it into an English Western – and just like its US counterparts, the landscape is a character. This almost non horror approach – it’s much closer to something like The Wild Bunch than the Poe adaptations of Roger Corman, or the English Hammers – is almost unique in British Horror films (off the top of my head I can think of only Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes that does anything similar, and it shares the contrast of bright red blood being splashed across our green and pleasant land). And while Reeves might, on the surface, have a deal in common with Peckinpah, there’s ultimately less sense of glory in the violence. There’s nothing heroic here, our hero’s revenge is not the all guns blazing finale of The Wild Bunch. In Reeves’ film violence taints, destroys, besmirches everything. There’s a blazing sense of anger in Reeves’ film. The censors were revolted, but could see the talent on display, that there was a mind behind it. Reeves was in no way glorifying the violence that he shows. He wants the audience to feel sick. He wants them to be angry. He wants to move them. More than anything, I think that is what has kept the film alive. Its vitality. Its ability to affect an audience viscerally. It punches you in the stomach just to make sure that you’re listening, and then tells you what it’s trying to say.

One last thing... Perhaps the most famous story from the making of the film, because for anyone who hasn’t – you have to hear this:

Vincent Price (who turns in one of his very best performances here) did not at first get on with this demanding upstart Brit telling him what to do and, more vociferously, what not to do. Finally it came to a head. ‘Young man,’ said Price. ‘I’ve made over a hundred films in my time, how many have you made?’

Reeves looked at him and said ‘Two good ones!’

It's said that Vincent saw the funny side and laughed. I hope so. I'd hate to think any less of him.

Tony Tenser, who produced Witchfinder General through his Tigon productions, made not just two good films, but four great ones. Bizarrely for an outfit that was at one point making cheap sexploitation he’s the man behind Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, and after Witchfinder General he made another great – if lesser seen – period horror movie: The Blood On Satan’s Claw.

The Blood On Satan’s Claw is a beautifully photographed movie that, like Witchfinder makes extensive use of the English landscape (the resolution of the clip above doesn't do it justice, but have a look and check that wonderfully evocative title sequence - it really marks the film out early on as being something different). Dick Bush’s cinematography is really something to behold, his use of deep focus and his careful framing, paint a very convincing portrait of the times. The use of largely natural light and location shooting brings a palpable texture to the film that adds much to the atmosphere, and director Piers Haggard uses limited resources to their utmost effect. Made four or five years before Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, you can’t help but think he must have seen the film and taken note, the photography really is that good.

I don’t think Haggard ever made a better picture than this. The atmosphere is taught, mysterious and genuinely creepy. He even gets amazing effect out of a single hairy clawed hand... it shouldn’t work this well, but it does.

The performances are, almost uniformly good and the faces of the extras look carefully chosen to evoke the oddity and unease of a Brueghel painting.

From the opening in which a farmer unearths a strange skull while ploughing to the final freeze frame ending, the picture builds in such a way that you cannot quite predict what’s coming. It doesn’t feel so much like a plot that we’re being worked through. It’s more immersive than that, more effective; more subtle and complex. It’s not so visceral as Witchfinder General, but a great deal more unsettling. It’s rather as if Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has been filtered through the work of M.R. James (that hairy hand beneath the floorboards in the shunned room seems very Jamesian to me). If the occasional red herring doesn’t quite pay off and the climax maybe doesn’t quite deliver ... the tightly wound up tension leading to it is such that the scene will likely linger in the mind for many years to come. It certainly has done in mine.

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