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August 2010

Witchfinder General

cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark, and Hilary Heath

director: Michael Reeves

82 minutes (18) 1968
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Prism Leisure DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Tigon DVD boxset

Witchfinder General

A tigon is the hybrid offspring of a tiger and a lion. Manchester's Belle Vue Zoo acquired a tigon cub called Rita in 1957. It died in February 1968, around the time Tony Tenser was launching Tigon Films. His Tigon was not so much a rival to Hammer Studios, for Hammer had already been producing horror-genre films for a decade, but for a time Tigon - and Amicus which also emerged in the final years of the 1960s, certainly moved into areas that Hammer had staked out as its own.

Witchfinder General is very much the kind of thing Hammer might have done. In fact, it's even better in some ways than the slightly tired films Hammer was churning out by then. A comparable example would be Hammer's Twins Of Evil (1971), with Peter Cushing engaged in enthusiastic puritan-inspired witch-burning. It's arguable that Tigon does it better here. Cushing was still up against jaded aristocratic vampires. There are no supernatural elements in Witchfinder General, just poor unfortunates denounced by villagers, then tortured and executed as witches.

The opening idyllic rural scene of sheep grazing, instantly cuts to a man on the skyline assembling gallows, then a priest reciting texts from the 'Book of Revelations' as villagers drag a protesting woman towards the gibbet. They kick the stool away beneath her, and her screams cease. Then there's the witchfinder - Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) on horseback, observing it all coldly. The screen shocks blue into the credits.

The year, announces the voiceover, is 1645 "in the grip of bloody civil war." Despite the credit disclaimer, Hopkins was very much a real figure (c. 1619-47). As was his 'witch-pricker' associate John Stearne (Robert Russell). They were part of the waves of fundamentalist religious hysteria thrown up by the prevailing mood of millennial fear, political turmoil, uncertainty and anxiety.

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" - 'The Book Of Exodus' (22:18)

With East Anglia under Parliamentarian control, the 'lawyer' Matthew Hopkins and his sadistic interrogator take advantage of areas where "the structure of law and order has collapsed." Adept at manipulating existing laws established since King James I's 'demonology trial' and the Lancaster witch trials of 1633 and 1934, they use them as a legal pretext for their activities. And motivated by such unscrupulous men, the villagers willingly participate in the most grotesque atrocities. Something equally true of the Salem horrors in 1692...

It's a salient reminder that when it comes to repressive intolerance and institutionalised terrorism, resurgent Islam has little to teach the west, and that Torquemada and the Inquisition had no monopoly on the vile torture and extermination of perceived heretics, apostates or those with opposing doctrinal views. When execution techniques cause insufficient degrees of suffering, Hopkins devises new torments, with supposed witches bound to frames that are then slowly winched down into blazing bonfires.

Vincent Price saw the script as an opportunity for one of his most intense performances, played absolutely straight, with none of the sometimes hammy overacting he was prone to. Although Hopkins maintains his righteous fa´┐Żade of puritan austerity, Stearne has no illusions about his master, they are paid three-guineas for each witch they unmask, and take whatever sexual opportunities their authority can contrive.

"Strange isn't it," Hopkins muses, "how much iniquity the Lord vested in the female," while taking full advantage of "the foul ungodliness of womankind." Stearne merely consorts with topless trollops in the local tavern. No real exaggeration there. The historical Hopkins, with Mary 'Goody' Phillips, a third member of the team but omitted from the film, were responsible for the deaths of some 230 alleged witches, justifying his mission in his book The Discovery Of Witches (1647).

Meanwhile, a group of 'new model army' soldiers, in the run-up to the anticipated skirmish at Naseby, joke about clean-cut Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) harbouring "ungodly thoughts of Sara." After a clash with royalist snipers, he takes advantage of a two-day leave to visit her, and her guardian, the local vicar John Lowes (Rupert Davies) in Brandeston. The priest is concerned. "The lack of order encourages strange ideas," he explains, and they've been accused of being papist idolaters.

He encourages the two to marry, and for Richard to take her to safety. There are brief flashes of nudity as they 'early to bed'. Then Richard returns to his regiment. There are long sequences of him heroically racing his noble steed through picturesque East Anglia countryside, all set to Paul Ferris' sweeping widescreen classically-styled score, filmed elegiacally on location at Kentwell Hall, Long Melford, and with the permission of the Lavensham Parish Council. But he always arrives too late.

As Hopkins and Stearne establish themselves in Brandeston to "carry on with god's work," they interrogate Lowes who has been denounced by the villagers, stripping him looking for the devil's mark. With Lowes in a dungeon awaiting the "due process of law," they inflict the 'prescribed methods' on a 'witch' in the adjoining cell, so he can hear her screams. When Sara intervenes the witchfinder suggests a 'private interview'. She offers herself to Hopkins in exchange for her guardian's life, which he accepts, and then Stearne rapes her.

Nevertheless, alongside two witches, the vicar is bound and lowered into the moat as Hopkins watches sternly. Their crimes proved - except for the 'innocent' one who drowns, they are hanged. Inevitably, Richard arrives too late, heroically risking courts-martial for desertion, to find the vandalised church graffiti'd 'witch'. He gives Sara money to reach safe lodgings, then dashes off again to seek revenge. He's distracted by meeting Oliver Cromwell, who tasks him with a fruitless errand to the Norfolk coast hunting the fugitive king, who has escaped overseas by the time he gets there.

Then, by the time he sets out to intercept Hopkins in Lavenham, the witchfinder is forewarned, and pre-emptively arrests both him and Sara with accusations of devilry. "The law is with me, remember," emphasises Hopkins as they're dragged off to the castle. With Richard chained to the wall, he's forced to watch as Stearne begins enthusiastically torturing a confession out of Sara. In the nick of time Richard's new model army companions arrive and, released in the confusion, Richard kills Stearne then butchers Hopkins with an axe. He's been driven insane by his ordeal. Sara, tied faced-down on the altar, screams out her horror as the credits roll. There is no happy ending.

Tony Tenser, who had worked with Roman Polanski on Repulsion (1965), registered Tigon in 1966. And between roughly The Blood Beast Terror (1968), and Curse Of The Crimson Altar (1968), it launched a series of low-budget exploitation films of varying, but occasionally highly enjoyable watch-ability. Inevitably, there were cult crossovers. Hammer's cinematographer Freddie Francis also directed for Tigon, with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing starring in his The Creeping Flesh (1973). While, as well as Vincent Price, the studio - operating from its Wardour Street office in Soho, attracted American horror aristocrat Boris Karloff for The Sorcerers (1967), also directed by doomed prodigy Michael Reeves.

As with Hammer, they diversified into TV spin-offery with Doomwatch (1972), and there was a frivolous late excursion into soft-porn with Mary Millington's Come Play With Me (1977). Quality-wise, there's some picture-distortion where previously edited-out sequences have been restored, but with Witchfinder General preserved as one of five titles included in a coffin-shaped The Tigon Collection: The Golden Age Of British Horror (Anchor Bay, 2005), the studio's legacy stands up well to revisits.

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