Witchfinder General (1968)

WITCHFINDER GENERAL - Silver Ferox DesignWhatever 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.      Witchfinder General - Director's Cut (1968) WS DVDRip - iTeM.avi_003571440This 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.     Witchfinder General - Director's Cut (1968) WS DVDRip - iTeM.avi_001297560What 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
Arnold Miller
Philip Waddilove
Screenplay by Tom Baker
Michael Reeves
Louis M. Heyward (additional scenes)
Based on Witchfinder General
by Ronald Bassett
Starring Vincent Price
Ian Ogilvy
Hilary Dwyer
Music by Paul Ferris
Kendall Schmidt (US version
Cinematography John Coquillon
Editing by Howard Lanning
Studio Tigon British Film Productions
American International Productions

 

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974.)

In a way it functions as archeology does. One has to use his intelligence to make sense of the signs and artifacts left by others to better understand his present. It seems like a long road – this path from caves to nuclear power – but that is nothing but an illusion. Mentality and society of the cave didn’t go anywhere. It’s just hiding better under the layers of cultural heritage.

Anyhow, I’m rambling because The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gives me plenty of causes to ramble. I was decades overdue in watching this cult classic though I passionately love horror movies. Sometimes it just happens like that. You never get around to actually do what you have been planning for a long time. After seeing “TTMC” for a first time, 40 years after it has been released, it’s like visiting an unknown brother of your best friends, the guy that you know everything about but still have to meet him and actually get to know him. There were countless reflections of “TTMC” throughout the decades – it happens when you make a genre landmark – and great many of them are actually “better” than the original. Or more watchable, at least from the modern, somewhat spoiled perspective. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still manages to deliver meaningful things. Even though you know what’s going to happen and how it’s gonna end from the moment of the opening shot.

 

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Something in me stirs and I could write pages and pages of text though I really don’t have time right now. Tomorrow is my 30th birthday and I still have to find a way how to deal with that. I’ll try the quick sketch. Maybe I’ll come back to this text some other time. Anyhow, while I was watching this last night one of the things that caught my attention was a powerful image of an American outback. All those years of incessant exploitation of outbacks and rednecks and many things rural didn’t manage to subdue it. It still delivers a chill and a sense of foreboding. I never really gave that any attention, but tonight I started to wonder how that trope functions outside my “comfort zone”.

 

Now, I’m a city boy – and every director out there, every script writer is a city boy (even if they are from the countryside, if you have an urge to write, go to university, or an urge to hold a camera in your hand you’re a city boy, there’s no arguing that). I understand the imagery. The subdued contempt of the “civilized ones” towards hillbillies, country weirdoes, and similar Steinbeckian heroes. To us, rural America (don’t get stuck on US, this stays true for any country in the world) presents an unknown, uncharted waters, alien land, dark underbelly of the post-industrial civilization. However you call it, it’s basically the same thing. We use it for symbolic purposes. Whether it reflects Vietnam-era US, whether it reflects Freudian Id, whether it reflects sexual transgressions – and it always reflects something – it never is “just a countryside” (at least, it isn’t in any horror movies of note) – we tend to picture it in images and rituals opposed to ones present in cities and “culturalised landscapes” (sure, there are movies that deal with urban horror, but that’s the different sort of thing). The family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the distorted image of an ideal family of sitcoms, ordinary, everyday tools are used for senseless destruction, destruction itself doesn’t have an agenda (there’s no reason behind it) etc. So, how does this imagery functions when it’s filtered through the eyes of a country-boy? I have no way of knowing that but somehow I think it can’t be the same. Does rural means the same thing to me and to my cousin that remained on a farm? And if my cousin were to direct something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would it be the same movie? Would the meaning change and which elements would he choose to omit from the final edit?

 

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These are important question, even 40 years after the initial release. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre spawned tons of followers and almost all of them functioned on that dichotomy. These images are still vivid and still meaningful as they were in 1973. (you can go outside the horror, think of Deliverance). Though it’s true that horror thrives on repetition, on rearranging the dark and hidden elements of our identities (individual and collective) to fascinate, warn, exploit and entertain, one has to ask himself why does he still believes in imagery of these movies.

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has gotten old and it cannot function as an “entertainment” or “spectacle” anymore. New generation flicks do that with more passion, more violence, more aggression and more of everything. So when we watch it today we’re bound to see it in a more simplistic way. Spectacle parts entertain us in a sort of ha-ha way reserved for camp. In exchange, we’re focused on a framework which has been “hidden” to original viewers, made visible in decades that followed. Granted, what we get is much more interesting than what has been and much more depressing in a way. It’s like divining future from the artifacts of the past. Much like archaeology. And just like archaeology it destroy the myths, it breaks the illusion and alienates you from a collective euphoria of today. Once you watch an old horror movies you can never watch a new one with a same mind. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad or something else entirely.

Director: Tobe Hooper

Producer: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley, Richard Saenz

Screenplay: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper

Story:    Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper

Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, Teri McMinn

Music: Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper

Cinematography:     Daniel Pearl

Editing:  Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson

Studio:   Vortex

 

 

 

 

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