Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blu-ray Review: Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968)
Digitally Remastered Special Edition Blu-ray

Label: Odeon Entertainment
Release Date: June 13th 2011
Region: ALL
Rating:18 Certificate
Duration: 86 mins
Video: 1.85:1 16x9 1080p
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono 2.0

Director: Michael Reeves
Cast: Vincent Price, Rupet Davies, Ian Oglivy, Patrick Wymark

Film: The year is 1645 and England is immersed in civil war as Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads fight to replace the King Charles I monarchy with a Republican Commonwealth. It's a lawless time not unlike the Old West here in the States and local magistrates rule regional territories with corruption and greed which allows for an unscrupulous few to exploit the superstitions of witchcraft and Satanism to their benefit. Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his sadistic accomplice John Stearne (Robert Russell) are two such people whom travel from village to village and torture confessions from accused "witches" for a tidy profit. It's the worse kind of corruption, a truly wicked account of man's opportunistic depravity.

The film's pre-credit  sequence opens grimly as a woman accused of witchcraft is taken to the gallows by a small procession. Her blood curdling cries of innocence falls on deaf ears and as as her lifeless body swings at the end of the rope as we see the self-proclaimed witchfinder Matthew Hopkins collect his fee and ride off.  Enter Richard Marshall (Ian Oglivy) a young Roundhead soldier and his small regiment whom are engaged in a skirmish with enemy soldiers who fight for the King. Surviving unscathed young Richard returns to the countryside for a visit with his lover Sara (Hilary Dwyer) who lives with her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Davis), a priest in a small village. The priest gives his blessing for the two to marry and warns Richard that there is a darkness over the small village and he wishes his niece to be taken from the area as soon as possible. For reason of envy or otherwise the Priest has been accused of  practicing witchcraft and the Witchfinder as been dispatched by the magistrate to investigate the accusations.  Richard returns to his regiment the following evening and actually passes Hopkins and Stearne  unaware that the inquisitor is in pursuit of Lowes and his attractive niece and that their lives will be forever changed in short order.

Once Hopkin arrives in town the magistrate takes him directly to the Priest's home and he is imprisoned as a suspected witch and subjected to tortures meant to elicit a confession. The Witchfinder General's torturer Stearne is a brutish, unmannered man who takes a sick pride in his sadistic trade. Hopkins carries himself with an air of snobbishness and supremacy and while he does not inflict the tortures he seethes with the pleasures derived from seeing it administered.  One such method of torture involves puncturing the skin with a long needle to locate the "Devil's Mark", an area of the body that sheds no blood when lanced. Often it would be a third nipple from which witches were said to feed their animal spirit familiars. Not a great time to have a superfluous nipple or to be a cat lover, seriously.

Quite horrified at the accusations made against her beloved uncle Sara offers her body to the witchfinder in exchange for leniency, which he accepts. Hopkins  instructs Stearne to keep the Priest in the dungeon but not to administer any further tortures upon him.  A short time later Hopkins learns that Stearne has raped Sara in his absence and he loses further interest in her and hangs the Priest. When Richard returns to the village and discovers what has transpired in his absence he vows to avenge the Priests death with the lives of both Hopkins and his torturer Stearne but the Witchfinder in turn accuses both he and Sara of witchcraft, imprisoning them both which leads to a shocking finale.

The films depictions of torture are perhaps not as shocking to audiences today as they were to cinema goers 43 years ago but are still effective in much the same way that Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was released in cinemas the same year, maintains it's lustre despite the fact that it's tame by current standards. Two years later Michael Armstrong would direct the more graphic and similarly themed Mark of the Devil (1970) that easily surpasses this in terms on on-screen grue but nonetheless Witchfinder General still proves distasteful enough in it's depravity to satisfy anyone with a soul.

Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968) stands as one of the great witchcraft films of the late 60's and early 70's if not all time, a grim testament to the depraved nature of man and the terrors of religious persecution. It also features a rather reigned-in performance from legendary fright icon Vincent Price who's known for a certain campy theatricality but turns in an intense, steely-eyed performance as the witchfinder. Apparently capturing this performance was no easy task and Reeves and Price came to blows several times throughout the film's production. Price would later come to say that the film represented some of his finest and I would have to agree.  

Blu-ray: This digitally remastered special release from Odeon Entertainment marks the films debut on Blu-ray and it looks glorious in 1080p. The source print here is not pristine, there are specks, some occasional image softness and fluctuating black levels but this is clearly an improvement over previous incarnations of the film on DVD. The film's muted earth tone color scheme lacks a lot of vibrancy but when do appear they are deep and rich with more texture and fine detail than I would have expected. The original English language Dolby Digital mono audio sounds great with clear dialogue and a robust score from Paul Ferris. No subtitles are offered.

Odeon Entertainment have stuffed this release with a plethora of extras beginning with it's best feature, a newly created commentary track from Michael Reeves biographer Benjamin Halligan and Michael Armstrong, the director of Mark of the Devil. It's a strong commentary punctuated by Armstrong's personal recollections of Reeves who came to know during the making of the film and briefly afterwards. Only nine months after the film's release Michael Reeves died at the age of 24 stemming from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, a man gone before his time. This disc also has several interesting featurettes; The Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves is an episode of the Euro TV show Eurotika, Bloody Crime: Witchcraft, a macabre documentary recounting the sordid and bloody history of Britain, a ten minute clip of Price on the 80's era daytime talk show called Vincent Price on Aspel and Company. We also get Intrusion: Michael Reeves Short Film a 10 minute student film of Reeves that is really not all that interesting but does feature optional commentary from Halligan and Armstrong. Alternate Scenes from the Export Version features some gratuitous nudity filmed for inclusion on export versions of the film which are not included on this cut of the film. The Metrodome release features both the director's cut and the export version with the extraneous nudity scenes. Also included are the Alternate Opening and Closing Credit from the U.S.  The Conqueror Worm cut of the film, an ill conceived retitling of the films by the American film distributor American International Pictures with epilogue and prologue narration by Vincent Price reciting an Edgar Allen Poe poem in an attempt to link the film to Roger Corman's  earlier cycle of Poe films The Raven (1963) and Masque of the Red Death (1964) both also starring Price. Finishing of the disc are a Theatrical Trailer and a Stills Gallery. What more could we ask for? Perhaps a branching version of the Export Cut or 5.1 surround sound but that's about it. The artificial 5.1 mixes do little to improve a viewing of a film in my opinion, let's just stick with what was intended. As for the export cut I think it's enough that scenes are included separately as they are the product of a producer's interference and not Michael Reeves intentions.

Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with Michael Reeves biographer Benjamin Halligan and Director Michael Armstrong. * 

- Documentary: The Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves (24 mins)
- Documentary: Bloody Crimes: Witchcraft and Matthew Hopkins (24 mins)  *
- Vincent Price on Aspel and Company (10 mins)
- Intrusion: Michael Reeves Short Film with optional commentary. (10 mins) (Never before commercially released)
- Alternate Scenes from the Export Version. *
- Theatrical Trailer and Stills Gallery.
- Alternate US Opening and closing Credits. 
* Exclusive to this Blu-ray

Verdict: Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General is one of my favorite classic British horror films, it's right up there with Robin Hardy's Wicker Man (1973) and Odeon Entertainment have given us a definitive director's cut of the film. It's well-stocked with extras and it is a region FREE edition. A high recommend all around and if you're a fan of the recent Christopher Smith film Black Death (2010) and the aforementioned Wicker Man I think this may be of particular interest to you. Separate from the film I would strongly recommend you research the production of the film as there's a ton of great trivia and quotes that make for quite an interesting read. 
3.75 outta 5

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