The embers on the fire are barely aglow. Night settles like a dark shroud o’er the endless Arctic tundra outside.
I say endless, even though I’m actually trapped in a force-field a mere matter of miles across. But I reckoned explaining all that would be a bit less poetic than just saying ‘endless’.
Anyway, it’s late. Too late for a film to come tonight, surely?
But I’m wrong. The TV crackles into life as the clock strikes midnight. The Witching hour.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
Witchfinder General was the fourth and final film of Director Michael Reeves tragically short life and career. He died aged only 27, less than a year after filming was completed. Having made one of the best British horror films of all time...
Witchfinder General is imbued with such cynicism and world-weariness that it seems all the more amazing that such a young director could have made it. There are obvious Vietnam parallels to be made, as an innocent, pastoral way of life is despoiled by an inhuman and corrupt enemy. The opening scenes where Richard (Ian Ogilvy) the swashbuckling hero professes his love to his beautiful Hilary is heavy with foreboding...
... as something wicked this way comes...
That was supposed to be a horse (sorry, I only had coconuts). For hark yonder! Here along this very country lane comes Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witchfinder General (based on a very real life person) played with rare restraint by Lord Vincent of Price.
Ah, Vincent Price. That face. That voice. Where did it come from?
Oh, I've not doubt that he may have merely started cooing and gurgling like a normal child before saying "Mama!" at around 9-months of age, but I prefer to think of his mother waking up one day to find a 9-month old baby Vincent - with the head of the adult Witchfinder General - sitting at the foot of the bed and speaking in a fully formed Vincent Price voice: "Greetings, mother. As you've no doubt noticed I shall be speaking from now on. I shall breakfast shortly on your breast milk."
I guess we'll never know which of those two scenarios it was. Maybe that's for the best.
Although Michael Reeves managed to elicit one of finest ever performances from Vincent Price in Witchfinder General, he was fought almost every step of the way by the veteran actor. The behind-the-scenes battles between the two makes for great reading. On one occasion, a frustrated Price is reported have told Reeves: "I've made 87 films. What have you done?"
Reeves responded: "I've made three good ones."
Price plays the part of Hopkins in such a way that we're never entirely sure of his true motivation. Does he actually believe in what he is doing? We know he's corrupt, for sure, but is that the reason for his work or merely a by-product of it? How deep is this man's heart of darkness? How empty the pit of his humanity?
The history books are unclear whether the real Hopkins died from an illness in bed (possibly Tuberculosis) or whether he was subjected to his own swimming test by an enraged mob of villagers. Let's hope it was the latter. The guy was obviously a dick.
The fictional Hopkins meets his maker in a more clear-cut way. After an orgy of burnings, drownings and hangings, he is stopped from torturing the lovely Hilary with an axe delivered swiftly to the bollocks by the heroic Richard. A happy ending it is not though, as Richard continues to beat Hopkins to a bloody pulp, only to be stopped by a soldier who dispatches Hopkins with a mercy shot.
"You took him from me! You took him from me!" howls a crazed Richard as a traumatized Hilary screams in anguish. Downbeat is not the word.
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