Halloween Horrors Continued:
The Witchfinder General
Mooneye -- Jeremy Latch, Sam Phillips and my son Daniel Bissette -- are on tour!
I'll post more info as/if I get it --
October 18th - Burlington, VT (house show)
October 19th - Boston, MA (house show)
October 20th - Albany, NY (house show)
October 23rd - Providence, RI (tentative)
October 25th - Philadelphia, PA (Palindrome house)
October 26th - Richmond, VA
October 27th - Asheville, NC
October 30th - Athens, GA
After that -- maybe Kentucky and Tennessee -- then:
November 7th - Chicago, IL
More news, detail as and if I get it. Sam Phillips may be reachable by email -- if your keen on catching them, try emailing Sam at email@example.com, and hope he is able to get to a computer. Use the subject line, "Steve Bissette sent me" if you're seeking info for seeing/hearing Mooneye -- but understand that Sam's ability to read/reply may be very limited while they're on the road!
Continuing my Halloween season series on a few of my all-time favorite horror films, here's a corker from 1968 that boasts some of the most brutal and beautiful imagery (with one of the most ravishing musical scores ever to grace a horror film) of all the British horror films. Along with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead that very same year, this film changed the genre, and many lives, forever...
The Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm
Michael Reeves was a mere 22 years old when he made his first great film, The Witchfinder General (1968, released in the US as The Conqueror Worm) -- which turned out to be his last film. Reeves was dead less than a year later from an overdose.
At the time, few recognized what Reeves had accomplished; indeed, most critics dismissed and/or reviled the film, if they'd bothered to see it at all (The New York Times review I recall had more to say about "something soapy" on the projector lens than the film itself). It was released in the US as an Edgar Allan Poe film, which it was not, though that shell game did bring in its target audience. Too brutal for television broadcast without extensive cuts, the film survived via 16mm rental and the occasional revival theater exhibition, but most of all thanks to writers like David Pirie (thanks to his seminal book Heritage of Horror, the first critical overview of British horror films), Bill Kelley and others, who seized on what Reeves accomplished and brought deserved attention to both the film and its extraordinarily young creator.
The film's legacy, and that of Reeves, has grown over the decades, despite the fact the film was essentially maimed for much of its American shelf life -- literally -- via the loss of its magnificent original musical score, supplanted in every American TV broadcast and video incarnation for over 20 years with a synthesizer score that neutered the film emotionally.
And Witchfinder General is very much a film of emotion, and motion: sweeping, grand, raw and ultimately overwhelming. I first saw it at The Joe Kubert School in the winter of 1976/77, at a 16mm screening in the main classroom of the Baker Mansion in Dover NJ, which was our first year central headquarters. A local Morristown NJ newspaper reporter, Bill Kelley, was showing us treasures from his private 16mm collection, and among his prized possessions was an excellent print of The Conqueror Worm.
(An aside: Bill and I became fast friends, and that same year I painted a full-color portrait of Reeves and his films for Bill as a spec cover for Cinefantastique, to accompany Bill's article on Reeves; alas, the cover was never used, though Bill's article saw print years later, and the original art for that piece resides in my old friend Mark 'Sparky' Whitcomb's collection).
Bill convinced Joe Kubert to watch it with us, despite Joe's reservations about horror films: King Kong was one thing, a Vincent Price faux-Poe was quite another. We were all soon swept up in the spell of the film, and I'll never forget glancing over at Joe as the film unreeled. His eyes were narrowed, his face taut. By the final 15 minutes, his hands were fists, his knuckles were white; it's that kind of movie. It gets to us where we all live -- outraged at the deeds onscreen going unpunished, infuriated at innocence so irrevocably ravaged and destroyed, mortified at the monumental human capacity for callous sadism and murder in the name of God, money and power.
This is how Witchfinder General played at US drive-ins, nabes and grindhouses in 1968-69, with Vincent Price's recitation of stanzas from Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Conqueror Worm" providing the thin context for the retitling -- a small price (pun intended) to pay for the film being released otherwise intact, including violence cut by UK censors.
It's still considered a horror film, primarily for its marketing (e.g., Vincent Price's starring role, and particularly the American-International Pictures US campaign) and the vivid power of its violence.
Though decidedly brutal, the mayhem is not gory, per se, though it was shockingly explicit for 1968; it is truly painful in a way few films other than Arthur Penn's (Bonnie & Clyde, The Chase, etc.) were in the '60s. But its not a horror film, not really. But in at the time, pre-Wild Bunch, the level of onscreen violence was enough to push a film into the turf of pure horror, and Reeves's film is certainly horrific, but there is no traditional horror content. There is no fantasy component, no sorcery or magic. The 'witches' who are tortured and killed are not witches, and Reeves never perceives them or misrepresents them as anything other than the perfectly ordinary, terribly unfortunate scapegoats they were (the names given to the characters Matthew Hopkins executes in the film are those of Hopkins's actual victims).
That said, The Witchfinder General is actually a western in content, scope and focus. It is, of course, a British western -- a rare breed indeed, as commentator Kim Newman and the film's producer/location scout Philip Waddilove point out on the new, definitive Witchfinder General DVD release -- but it is closer to the disturbing, harrowing terrain of American director Anthony Mann's classic 1950s westerns with James Stewart than any horror film of its or any earlier era.
In fact, Reeves arguably extends the genre-blurring intensity of Mann's last great western, the Gary Cooper vehicle Man of the West (1958), which was as close as Mann ever came to doing a horror film. Thematically, Man of the West and The Witchfinder General concern violence as a contagion that is all-consuming once engaged. In both films, powerful patriarchs foment the mayhem: in Man of the West, the ties are familial, the hateful patriarch (Lee J. Cobb) intent upon pulling the nominal hero Cooper back into his male brood's almost feral inbred circle. Cobb's relatives -- Cooper's siblings -- are played by Royal Dano, Jack Lord, John Dehner and Robert J. Wilke, and a more vicious, incestuous family would not emerge from American cinema until The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (it was Bill Kelley who directed me to this observations, and screened Man of the West for me the first time; that's another one I owe you, Bill).
In Witchfinder, it is the nomadic titular figure Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) who is the fearmongering authority figure, a low-tech war profiteer, sanctioned by neither the church nor state, who preys upon the ignorance and fear of the 17th Century British Civil War citizenry. Amassing power and riches by "purging" communities of "witches" via the torture of innocents and torching of "the guilty," Hopkins makes himself the focus of the wrath of a young British officer, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), when he and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) betray and rape the soldier's fiance Sarah Lowes (Hilary Dwyer, aka Hilary Heath) and torture and hang her uncle John, a priest (Rupert Davies). Ogilvy's hero becomes obsessed with exacting revenge, an oath he swears at the film's 45 minute mark, and the self-consuming, self-destructive coil of Hopkins's profiteering and Marshall's rage inexorably tightens to its shattering climax.
Once you recognize the movie as a western, everything else about The Witchfinder General falls into place quite eloquently: the strong male drive of the film, its physicality, the scope, the use of landscape (the British countryside has never been used so beautifully, nor conveyed such expanse or primal lawlessness), the way the plot turns on barroom fights and duels, the buildup to the final 'showdown' in which the tables are turned by the arrival of the cavalry (two of Ogilvy's fellow soldiers), and -- alas -- the tragic powerlessness of the put-upon heroine (who is as much property to her husband as soulmate: note how, in the same ceremony in which they wed, he with his next breath vows vengeance on Hopkins, derailing his role as husband and consigning Sarah to her fate as hapless pawn trapped between opposing male powers).
The Witchfinder General is a western, as committed to the rivalries between powerful loners and as tightly constructed as any western by Don Siegel (Reeves's absolute hero; Reeves contrived to meet Siegel and visit one of his film sets at Universal, and reportedly held Siegel's The Killers as his all-time favorite film), Butt Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Sam Fuller or Sam Peckinpah; in fact, John Coquillon's cinematography for Reeves here led to Coquillon subsequently shooting three of Peckinpah's features, starting with Straw Dogs (1971, a bastard British-set horror/western if ever there was one). Once seen in this context, the cinematic quotes (never disruptive, simply grace notes) are vivid: a barren tree amid a field filled with grazing sheep which Marshall scatters while riding like a whirlwind evokes Boetticher; Reeves and Coquillon capture a John Ford sunset or two, moments evocative of The Searchers. I have had friends who always found the Hammer Film horrors an absolute bore; in contrast, Witchfinder General is paced like a western, its momentum gathering until the edge-of-the-seat tension of the finale. The action sequences, including a marvelous chase on horseback and the 'en route' riding sequences as Marshall moves from pawn to determined knight on Reeves's narrative chessboard, are potent and take on a cumulative power that packs surprising power by the final act. The riding sequences -- the key transitional passages of the film, really, the glue that holds the film together -- are as rousingly staged as those Sergio Leone orchestrated to Ennio Morricone's score for A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, and Reeves and Paul Ferris as director and composer work as hand-in-glove with their sequences.
But I think it's Mann's westerns that are most relevant here, and the clearest precursors -- especially in their evocation of obsession and the need for vengeance as an insanity, of violence as a force that can only breed more violence, to no good end. In the '50s, Mann could (and, given the reign of the Motion Picture Code, had to) conceive of a cathartic 'happy ending' to his scenarios, however extreme the behavior of his hero (James Stewart, most often) and the conflict. Reeves, amid the societal upheavals and breakdowns of the '60s, couldn't arrive at an honest finale capable of even pretending any good could come of the maelstrom of mayhem Hopkins fomented and inspired in others, his hero included. The climax of Witchfinder General is indeed horrific, though it's worth noting it was reportedly improvised on the set in the eleventh hour -- an act of desperation, as desperate as that of its fiction, but absolutely attuned to its times.
It was in the air. Borderline horror westerns followed: Robert Mulligan's The Stalking Moon (1968) was an immediate contemporary of Reeves's film, followed by the bloodbaths of Peckinpah's magnificent The Wild Bunch (1969), the humanist Grand Guignol of Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue (1970), the grubby horrors of Cut-Throats Nine (1972, which was sold as a horror film in the US), and films like Don Medford's misanthropic The Hunting Party (1971) and Michael Winner's lean, spare Chato's Land (1972) and others. Of course, the Italian westerns were already meshing genres: only later did I catch up with the baroque outrageousness of Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966), The Hellbenders (1967) and Giulio Questi's wildest of all spaghetti westerns Django Kill (1967). Like Witchfinder General, some of these 'true' westerns (including Penn's Little Big Man, 1970) were (along with biker and horror movies) the only tolerated metaphoric vehicles for addressing the Vietnam War, which had become taboo somewhere between Sam Fuller's China Gate (1957, the first American Vietnam War film, though that's forgotten today) and John Wayne's rightwing polemic The Green Beret (1968, co-directed by Ray Kellogg, the man who helmed The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews, both 1959).
Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins: I don't share in this essay the oft-repeated reports of the onset friction between Price and Reeves, which is discussed at length on the new DVD's extras -- suffice to say Price delivers one of his all-time best onscreen performances here, making Hopkins one of cinema's most chilling, arrogant villains
But Reeves was onto something more primal and universal -- though his film is of its era, and arguably a wellspring for the Vietnam westerns that followed, Reeves was dramatizing a philosophical take on our species, to the marrow: our capacity for violence, our self-destructiveness when the urge is attached to a righteous cause, be it opportunistic avarice or selfless dedication to the extermination of an implacable foe.
This, too, is thematically central to the western genre, and arguably closer to the pre-1968 western genre than it was to the pre-1968 horror genre.
Yes, Witchfinder General is a western -- but one must engage with its traditional context as a horror film, which it most certainly is, too.
Thus, as a horror film -- which is what Witchfinder General was marketed as -- it was as revelatory, overwhelming and true as its immediate American contemporary independent, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).
In tandem with Romero and Night of the Living Dead, Reeves and The Witchfinder General thrust the genre at last into the '60s, and the year of their creation and release -- 1968 -- in particular. Both films end with freeze frames, at their respective narrative's bleakest conclusions: no exit.
These were the first Modern Horror Films, the true spawn of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960): angry, assaultive, taking no prisoners and, unless they were trashing archetypes and stereotypes, had little patience with the trappings of the Gothic templates and typical genre constraints. Those were molds to be smashed, their illusory comforts forever abandoned.
(It's interesting to note, too, that AIP's honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson allowed Reeves's downbeat climax to stand, while they insisted upon Romero and his collaborators change Night of the Living Dead's similarly despairing climax and coda; Romero refused, and AIP did not release NOTLD, which was instead picked up by indy Walter Reade, who neglected to copyright the new title -- but that's another story.)
Reeves placed his characters amid a historic civil war in Cromwell's England (note Patrick Wymark's spot-on cameo as Cromwell, a deftly scripted, played and executed sequence that lends weight to the whole); Romero plunged his into an imaginary American civil war, pitting the living against the reanimated dead. Both brought thus used their respective genre vessels to "bring the war home," the televised Vietnam War, a point felt more strongly at the time in Romero's film due to its use of television news broadcasts as an integral part of the film.
In both, the war consumes everyone onscreen in the end -- there is no escape, no refuge, no safety, and neither the church, state or military offer salvation, as they are indeed the agents of destruction. In both, the genre trappings only serve to lend the films an almost unprecedented sense of immediacy, urgency, and danger.
The contagion of violence -- there is no theme more timely today, given the spiral of violence we, as a country, culture and people have willingly, willfully plunged ourselves into so heedlessly since 9/11. The Witchfinder General remains as powerful and vital a film as it was when it was made (when we, as a country, culture and people were likewise consumed with the madness that was the Vietnam War). It is, in fact, more timely, given the utter transparency of the war profiteering of those in power in the Bush Administration and corporate culture today -- the calculated fear-and-war-mongering, the hubris of those in power, the utter disregard for human misery and death, the embrace of torture (per usual, "justified" means to an end), the inevitability of justifiable ire and impossible-to-justify unslakeable appetites for revenge that must follow... it's all here, in the microcosm of The Witchfinder General. We truly never learn -- and the very people so caught up in such patriotic/religious fervor, as orchestrators and as orchestrated participants, are the very people who would revile such a film's existence, if they ever were troubled by crossing its path. And that, too, is the tragedy of the situation.
The eye is uncovered, the evil grows: The opening shock of Piers Haggard's sleeperBlood on Satan's Claw (1971), Tigon's own successor to Witchfinder General and a terrific, terrifying medieval tale of possession and satanism
The Witchfinder General made money, and was among its production studio Tigon's greatest boxoffice successes.
Noting its impact on subsequent westerns (if nothing else, we know Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah were aware of what Reeves had wrought), one must also acknowledge its impact on horror films. The most immediate spawn were the 'witchfinder' films, the best of which (witch?) was Piers Haggard's own followup for Tigon, the gem Blood on Satan's Claw (1971, aka Satan's Skin, and which I believe is the precursor to the best monster short story of the '80s, Clive Barker's Rawhead Rex), which starred Patrick Wymark as its 'witchfinder' patriarch. The best known and most profitable successors, though, were undoubtably Ken Russell's extraordinary The Devils (1971, cut even in its 'X' version and still missing key sequences) and fellow young tyro British director Michael Armstrong's notorious German opus Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (1970).
The latter -- Witches Tortured Until They Bleed is the literal translation -- is better known under its English/US title Mark of the Devil, a partial remake with Herbert Lom in the witchfinder role, which rocketed to glory with Boston-based Hallmark Releasing's brilliant ad campaign. In the UK, Witchfinder General had been ballyhooed as "The Year's Most Violent Film!," and Hallmark trumped that with Mark of the Devil's shameless vomit bag, "Rated 'V' for Violence," and "Positively the most horrifying film ever made!" promo. Russell's The Devils arguably trumps The Witchfinder General as a film, and though I always linked them myself, it wasn't until I listened to producer Philip Waddilove's commentary track (with Ian Ogilvy) on the new Witchfinder General DVD that I realized how closely Russell built upon Reeves's bedrock: Waddilove notes that Reeves wanted the countryside peppered with discarded corpses and buzzing flies, 'litter' casually reflecting the reality of life amid wartime. Budgetary constraints prevented that, but Russell's The Devils brims with the grim landscape of plague-infested France, its first images those of maggot-filled rotting human bodies pinned to wheels and strewn in ditches.
While I'd defend the three films I've cited as worthwhile films, and one (The Devils) a work of art, much of what followed imitated the basest elements of Reeves's film, reveling in the bloodshed as idiotically as the cruel peasants savoring, and often complicit in, Hopkins's atrocities. As with our current war, it's never hard to find eager recruits ready to fight for 'the cause,' especially if they can get their rocks off and get paid in the bargain (Blackwater, anyone?).
Enough -- well, almost enough. It's essential to note the excellence of the performances, the stellar technical support, and just how well-made Witchfinder General is. It is as bracingly involving and contemporary a film today as it was in '68. Thankfully, the new MGM/Fox DVD release of Witchfinder General -- for the first time in the US! -- restores the film to its original glory. Primary among its restoration attributes is the original Paul Ferris score re-wed with Reeves's film (as Tim Lucas notes, this is "actually MGM's reconstruction, as it was done there under the aegis of James Owsley"). Note, too, that Ferris is in the film. Out of his great admiration for Maurice Jarre, composer Paul Ferris used the pseudoname "Morris Jar" for his brief role as Paul Clark, the agonized husband of one of Hopkin's victims, Elizabeth; Paul later tries to avenge her horrific death by burning, to no good end. As Maurice Jarre had for Georges Franju's Les Yeux Sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face (1959), Ferris composed an exquisite musical score for Michael Reeves's most famous (and infamous) film; the Ferris score brings the whole of Reeves's ambitious, breathlessly-paced historic drama to vivid emotional life.