Whatever else it might be, Witchfinder General is not a horror. Oh, it surely was intended as such (or, shall we say, marketed as such), and it surely was perceived as such in 1968 Britain, but we shouldn’t give too much credit to historical (or even author’s) classifications. If at anything, we should look at internal logic of the movie in question. If we do that, the horror classification becomes problematic. To lot of people mere name of Vincent Price symbolizes old-school horror (or even horror itself), and because of that it’s understandable that Witchfinder General will find itself on some “best of horror” list over and over again. Let’s just say that if someone were to make a remake of this movie, not touching anything but the color and costumes, no one of sane mind would call that movie a horror. Historical fantasy – maybe. Sadistic exploitation – maybe (though far less likely, our standards have gone up in that field). It would definitively be put somewhere within the confines of historical movie. Not the Spielbergian kind, mind you, but history movie nevertheless.
I have no inclination to go into a long rant about the idea of horror, or how to define that genre exactly. Suffice it to say that bunch of sadists paired with graphic torture does not necessarily qualify a movie for a horror tag. Whatever else it might be (and rest assured, there’s no possible way in which it classifies as horror), Witchfinder General is primarily one thing. A good movie. One of the best critical movies about authority, submission and complicity that has been made in the long history of cinema. This requires some further explanation. While it undoubtedly tackles aforementioned themes, Witchfinder General doesn’t focus entirely on them. Putting this movie within the context of political drama (though somewhat burlesque-like I agree) is possible only if we do a little bit of abstraction in the process. There is a core element here from which there can be no escape. That’s the element Michael Reeves relied on for a successful sales pitch. We have a demonic (though unquestionably human, which is an important thing to notice) character of Matthew Hopkins, we have his sadistic crusade that’s happening all around England’s countryside, and – finally – we have a Richard Marshall – young soldier in service of Cromwell whose bride-to-be is “desecrated” in the process of the aforementioned crusade. These elements provide enough material for a revenge-movie (Reeves is taking great care to follow that line of presentation. He builds his villain quite well, he takes great care in prolonging the necessary final conflict, he “manipulates” his audience by giving them enough time to build up enough hate-rage so when the final fall of an axe eventually comes it functions as a cathartic release – metaphorical cleansing of historical guilt and so on) but those are nothing but a distraction. What goes on behind the spectacle of revenge-flick is somewhat more subtle. Too see that, one has to interpret Richard Marshall as a tool. The real “demon” of Witchfinder General isn’t a guy in funny cape (on a side note, real Matthew Hopkins wasn’t of Vincent Prices’ age – he was in his late twenties which is a moment contemporary filmmaking wouldn’t have missed if only because it provides more potential for the insight into the somewhat revered figure of sociopath) – it is, as always, multitude (while Hardt and Negri will argue that multitude is a powerful political force, they seem to neglect known historical manifestation of that power). It is multitude who “summons” the Witchfinder, it is multitude who stands behind and revels in torture, it is multitude who is motivated by fear, malice, or some sort of gain, it is multitude who is without empathy, and finally – it is multitude who supports both local rulers and king himself both of which legitimize this kind of behavior. Only an ordered society (symbolized, as always, in a figure of an army), with clear goals and military might can put an end to the wants and needs of unruly collective. Representational democracy is too crude a tool to do a good governmental job. Considering Witchfinder General came out in 1968, the year of Revolts, it is not that far-fetch to interpret it as a reactionary movie aimed at liberal movements of Western world. While it is too crude a statement to be considered seriously at face value, one can’t easily deny that Reeves managed to pinpoint some interesting characteristics of modern society, especially ones concerning relation between authority, power, fear, and control. Whoever might think that the days of arbitrary inquisitions are over, has only to gaze in the general direction of Guantanamo. One can learn much from the existence of such an institution.
|Directed by||Michael Reeves|
|Produced by||Louis M. Heyward
|Screenplay by||Tom Baker
Louis M. Heyward (additional scenes)
|Based on||Witchfinder General
by Ronald Bassett
|Music by||Paul Ferris
Kendall Schmidt (US version
|Editing by||Howard Lanning|
|Studio||Tigon British Film Productions
American International Productions