Witchfinder General Michael Reeves (UK 1968) Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 16 Nov 2015; ticket: free screening as part of the ‘Being Human15′
The last witch trial in England
Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General is another of those movies from the late 60’s and early 70’s which exploited violence as an expressive force to confront the resistance of bourgeois sensibilities to the knowledge that the body is the ultimate site upon which power is exercised. Perhaps Reeves and other directors at this time were fortunate in the sense that violence had not yet become a regular part of the cinematic diet. Violence today usually a formulaic indulgence, the casual recourse of distracted entertainment; violence disconnected from the either the real physical or from social or historical context.
And Reeves’ film links violence society and the flesh to a historical context with a contemporary reference. Society for different kinds of reasons: chaos, insecurity, moral collapse and breakdown, seeks out scapegoats as: diversion, misdirection, self legitimisation. It then procedes to mark upon the bodies (or perhaps minds) of scapegoated individual, the signs of their transgression. A substitute victim on whom to imprint the pain of fractured social relations.
Context: the Profumo Affair. Reeves as he wrote his script will have been familiar (sic) with the death of Steven Ward in 1963. And this death surely fed into and helped form some of Reeves’ ideas about the content of his film. Steven Ward, together with prostitute ‘witches’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (the latter two as coerced blackmailed and pilloried witnesses against Steven), were subjected to very public trial both by gutter press, egged on and encouraged both by the establishmen the prosecutors (witch hunters) and judiciary. Steven Ward, tortured and shattered by the experience of his trial killed himself by taking an overdose (some point to a more sinister agent namely MI5) whilst awaiting sentence having been found guilty of ‘sex’ crimes.
The whole scandal, took place in the context of a British political and social establishment engulfed by moral panic. Ward’s ordeal was, at time of writing, surely the last witch trial in England.
The form of the movie adopted by Reeves stylistically resembles a Hammer Film production (Certainly in relation to the interiors; some of the landscape shots are of a different order). The rather rigid period shot ‘set ups’, the use of zoom lens for dramatic emphasis and a mis en scene set in Olde England, with the characters costumed up for ‘the period’ but with contemporary 60’s hair cuts. Reeves’ subverts this filmic formula by use of scenes depicting the direct physical violence perpetrated by the witchhunters upon their victims. The usual horror convention was to stay true to the conventions of costume and not to include images (sound was another matter; ref the Berberian Sound Studio) of raw violence in films. Hence Hammer Films’ reputation for rather camp/arch theatrical horror.
Reeves’ story is real in the sense that his main character, Matthew Hopkins was an actual witchhunter, a bounty hunter, responsible for the deaths of many witches, nearly all women who had ‘confessions’ extorted out of them by torture and violence. But just as to tell the story of Mandy Ian and Christine, you have to tell the story of the body and the psychological violence perpetrated on them by power; Reeves’ ‘witches’ are not horror phantasms. There is a ‘moral’ purpose to show what was done to them. Otherwise we will not get it: we won’t see beyond the cozzies. Reeves’ shows us the blows, the prickings, the hangings, the burning. The violence in Witchfinder General is shocking because it has a moral purpose, that undermines the outer theatrical form of the film. Most critics at the time, including Alan Bennett, simply saw the film as as repugnant exercise in sadism. A comment sufficient in itself on the blinkered vision of the UK arts establishment at this time in relation to British movies.
Vincent Price’s performance in Witchhunter is extraordinary. He is chilling in delivery, discipline and diligence. The psychic immobility of his sadism creates the image of the perfect psychopathic killing machine. As we watch his singular progress across East Anglia, his deft insinuation of righteousness, he calls to mind with vivid realisation the men who presided over other terror regimes. Hitler’s Stalin’s Polpot’s and latterly the Isis’ power ultimately rested on pain and physical degradation of the body, carried out by men and women all the more terrifying for their cynicism and pure self gratification justified in the name of ‘higher values. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org