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Wicked Witches: Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General #2

by Steve Habrat

You don’t have to be a horror fan or cinema buff to know that legendary horror actor Vincent Price was known for his winking villainy. His iconic voice and his mysterious appearance landed him roles in numerous low-budget horror films from William Castle and Roger Corman; two men who knew how to playfully lure an audience into the local drive-in. While he may have made a name for himself grinning at the audience through pictures like House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler, he certainly wasn’t camping up his role in the 1968 witch-hunting horror film Witchfinder General. Directed by Michael Reeves and loosely based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, Witchfinder General is a startlingly dark and brutal look at witch hunting during the English Civil War. Loaded with still-shocking scenes of rape, torture, and graphic execution, Witchfinder General is heavily interested in the realistic side of witch hunting. There are no craggy-faced women huddled around a cauldron, wearing pointy hats, or chanting spells in this witchy horror film. The real monsters of this picture are the men who hunted down innocent civilians and mercilessly tortured them in the hopes that they would confess to conspiring with the devil. That evil is brought to life by Price, who delivers one of the best performances of his career as the “Witchfinder General” himself, Matthew Hopkins.

Witchfinder General begins in 1645, explaining that England is caught in a savage civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. In the midst of the civil war are witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (played by Vincent Price) and his vicious assistant John Stearne (played by Robert Russell). Hopkins and Stearne ride from town to town ferreting out accused witches, torturing them, and then putting them to death. Hopkins and Stearne arrive in the quiet town of Bradeston, where they seek out a priest by the name of John Lowes, who has been accused of being a witch. Hopkins proceeds to torture Lowes right in his own home, but during the process he is stopped Lowes’ beautiful niece Sara (played by Hilary Dwyer). Sara offers herself to Hopkins in the hopes that he will spare her uncle. Her deal works for a while, but after Stearne discovers what is going on, he rapes Sara and hints that he knows what Hopkins has been up to. Hopkins immediately orders that Lowes be put to death, and then hastily departs once the execution has been carried out. Devastated, Sara turns to her fiancé, Richard Marshall (played by Ian Ogilvy), a Roundhead soldier who has returned for his bride. Enraged by Sara’s story, Richard sets out to find the witch hunters and make them pay for what they have done.

After only five minutes, it’s pretty clear that Witchfinder General is learning towards exploitative horror. The viewer is forced to watch an accused witch is drug to her death by a silent procession. She screams and cries the entire way, her pleas for her life ignored as she is strung up in a noose and then violently dropped. Reeves never cuts away from the death, allowing the unnerving realism to really sink in. Watching the senseless murder in the distance is Hopkins, making sure his gruesome work is mercilessly carried out to the max. This is exactly how Witchfinder General plays out, with prolonged scenes of torture and death. With such a glaringly small budget (a majority of the film takes place outside with only a handful of extras in each shot), the gore effects are surprisingly good, not overly elaborate yet graphic and painful nonetheless. We are treated to a horrific procedure where suspected witches are dipped into a river from a bridge to see if they float or drown, a cringe-inducing ritual that involves being pricked in the back with a needle, a nasty kick to the eyeball with a horse spur, an unblinking burning, and a gruesome murder that finds one character being hacked up with an axe. There is not one nasty scene in the film that feels cheap or fake despite the fact that the blood being used resembles melted candle wax.

Witchfinder General #1

The violence of Witchfinder General certainly shocks, but it’s the unbelievably chilly performance from Price that will absolutely floor the viewer. It is widely said that Reeves didn’t want Price in the role of Hopkins and he made his feelings known on the set. With Hopkins, Price is all business, shooting squinty and suspicious looks at each and every man, woman, and child that steps in his line of sight. He rides proudly through town, proclaiming that he does such great work in the name of the Lord that his superiors have taken to calling him the “Witchfinder General,” a title he wears with bloodthirsty glee. The performance is amazingly vile and it’s obvious that Price reached into some dark places to muster that performance. Equally nasty is Russell as John Stearne, the sadistic torturer who enjoys bragging about his profession in town pubs. His behavior in the torture cells is wicked, but it’s the way he drunkenly composes himself in public that is beyond repulsive. Pitted against these two hounds of Hell is Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall, who trembles with rage over the atrocious acts that these two men have carried out. He rides like lightning across the countryside searching high and low for his targets and when he finds them, he becomes an unstoppable killing machine.

Made for a little over $100,000, Witchfinder General doesn’t really have much in the way of lavish sets or chilling atmosphere. It gets under your skin with the violence and depravity that can lurk in each and every one of us. With much of the film-taking place outdoors, Reeves makes excellent use of the scenic English countryside. There are only a few major set pieces, one being a desecrated home/church that Hopkins has left in ruin and another is an outdoor sequence in the town of Lavenham. The scene finds Hopkins burning a woman to death right smack dab in the middle of the town while the villagers look on with the coldest expressions imaginable. It’s probably the grandest and most terrifying sequence of the entire film. The rest of the epic scale is milked through wide shots of green fields, roaring beaches, and early autumn forests. Overall, off-screen tensions and tight budgets aside, Witchfinder General is an incredibly powerful witch-hunt horror film that rattles the viewer with its unspeakably real violence. It’s through this realistic tone that Reeves is able to examine the appalling underbelly of humanity and rub our faces right in the violence. The film also achieves greatness through Price, who blazes through the carnage like the devil incarnate. It’s a performance that you never knew existed in Price and one you will never forget. A gruesome cult classic.

Grade: A-

Witchfinder General is available on DVD.

The Raven (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Throughout James McTeigue’s overcast thriller The Raven, I kept wondering what the film would have been like if it would have been approached in a much more serious manner rather than as a graphic novel that has come to life. The film, which cleverly uses Edgar Allen Poe as the hard-boiled detective to solve murders based around his own work, does have a pulpy storyline, one that you could very easily see illustrated out in comic book form but I felt like the film could have been much better if the filmmakers would have made it a little bit grittier and meaner. Instead, McTeigue instructs his actors to lightly flit around what look like leftover sets from Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd while holding up lanterns to see through the CGI fog that is supposed to create a portentous atmosphere. The film also tries to lighten the already forced mood by having the superb John Cusack, who plays the boozy Poe, spew chuckle worthy one liners like he is a cleaned up Jack Sparrow on vacation from his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Despite these major flubs, The Raven does have a handful of moments that are moderately fun but they quickly fly off like a startled raven.

The Raven begins with the witty Detective Emmett Fields (Played by Luke Evans) showing up to a grisly double murder and quickly observing that the crime scene resembles a story written by the booze sipping Edgar Allen Poe (Played by John Cusack). After being taken into police custody, Poe is convinced by Evans to begin helping the police to catch the murderer before he strikes again. Poe also happens to be in love with the blonde and beautiful Emily Hamilton (Played by Alice Eve), who at a costume ball, is kidnapped by the murderer, sending Poe and Emily’s protective father Colonel Hamilton (Played by Brendan Gleason) into a frenzy to try to find her. As more murders stack up, Poe has to get inside the killers mind by using clues that he leaves at the crime scenes to find Emily before the deranged fan slices and dices her. But as the chase furthers, Poe begins to suspect that he may not live make it out of the investigation alive.

The Raven is the same old hack and slash whodunit that is dressed in all in black and sips brandy from a flask. The most inspired aspect of the film is the way the killer dispatches his victims by using the work of Poe. By far the most grisly is the death that is inspired by “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a scene that overflows with CGI blood that is flung directly at the audience. I’m stunned the filmmakers weren’t compelled to convert the film to 3D just to milk the effect even more. This is the exact problem with The Raven. It’s just gets too cartoonish for its own good and is overly concerned with its own outer appearance rather than making something that will really stick with us and, dare I say, disturb us to our core. Instead, it’s sleek when it should embrace a little dirt under its fingernails. I suspect that McTeigue, who directed the awesome 2006 comic book film V for Vendetta, never really snapped out of comic mode. McTeigue and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are all about images that look cool and speeding the story along to the next gruesome discovery, with everyone but Poe choking out simple dialogue that would seem more at home in big white speech bubbles protruding from their mouths.

Of all the players in The Raven, Cusack hits it out of the park with his motor-mouthed Poe, who bursts with intelligent jabs at those who try to insult him and continuously spars with Colonel Hamilton, who despises the drunken Poe. Cusack is committed to Poe to the very end and really does his best to give him a little bit of depth and glassy-eyed emotion. He steals every scene he’s in and he makes The Raven a bit easier to sit through without your mind wandering away from the story. Cusack is a magnetic actor and I admit that I really do enjoy his work. My one compliant with his performance is that I wish it were smudged with a little bit more intensity at times but the screenwriters would like him to be a jester. Brendan Gleason sneaks by as Colonel Hamilton, although he isn’t given much more to do than to grumble on about his dislike for Poe and to yell “EMILY!” when he finds out she is missing. It’s a shame that Gleason’s talent was severely underused. Luke Evans plays the real hard-boiled detective in the film, but he just resorts to saying everything with in a gruff whisper. The screenwriters are disinterested in really fleshing him out and he is relegated to just making speeches to groups of gung-ho police officers. Alice Eve is another minor standout and she does have a spark with Cusack, but we only see that spark in brief flashes before she is separated from Cusack for a good majority of the film.

The Raven is devoid of any tension, fear, or shock, all three things that are desperately needed within the film. It briefly thrills here or has us scoot to the edge of our seat there but sadly, McTeigue seems to think that if the whodunit thriller ain’t broke, don’t you dare do anything to fix it or even put a creative spin on it. Another disappointment of The Raven is the big reveal at the end, when we finally get to see the face of the killer, who ends up being a character that we’ve barely seen throughout the film. Maybe it would have been a little bit more of a bombshell if it was someone closer to Poe instead a distant background player we don’t give a lick about. The Raven couldn’t be any more by the books or worse, predictable even when it thinks you have no idea what is coming next. Maybe if The Raven had been a little more game to get its hands dirty rather than cover them up in all the CGI body fluids and atmospherics, things would have played out differently. Ultimately, McTeigue and The Raven are a little too soft and play a bit too nicely, which is a shame because Cusack came to have some devilish fun.

Grade C