It was Woodrow Wilson, I believe, who exclaimed after seeing 1968’s Witchfinder General: “’Tis like history written with lightning.” The doomed director Michael Reeves’s apotheosis is, at any rate, one of the finest examples of British horror in its late-60s/early-70s magic hour, and micro-budget historical fiction with a galloping pulse. An early narration establishes the scene:
“The year is 1645. England is in the grip of bloody Civil War. On one side stand the Royalist party of King Charles. On the other, Cromwell’s Parliamentary party, the Roundheads… Justice and injustice are dispensed in more-or-less equal quantities without opposition…”
Ian Ogilvy plays Cornet Richard Marshall, a cavalryman fighting for the Parliamentary cause. Ogilvy was a former schoolmate of Reeves, a wunderkind who turned twenty-four on the set. (Reeves co-wrote the script with another childhood friend, Tom Baker.) Ogilvy looks, then, like a lanky, sparse-bearded boy—that is, like the sort of person who’s actually called to fight when war comes. On a brief furlough to the village of Brandeston, Marshall is betrothed to Sara (Hilary Dwyer), making a promise to protect Sara to her guardian uncle (Rupert Davies), a village priest who fears for her safety as anti-papist graffiti spring up over his parish. From an ominous opening, we understand that such slanders are the beacons to summon Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), a travelling extralegal witchhunter/inquisitor, and his thug lackey, John Stearne (Robert Russell). What occurs when Hopkins arrives is very grim; the pertinent point is that Cornet Marshall swears himself to find Hopkins, and to have his head.
The usually plummy Price was reigned in by Reeves’s direction; stern face framed by chin-length, iron-streaked locks, Price’s head is a long, solemn bell, tolling doom wherever he rides (his voice, however, remains a petulant kazoo). In contrast to his employer’s straight-backed puritan pretense, Stearne is a conscienceless wild boar of a man, a hunched, swaggering, grimy peasant prone to carriage-inn carousing with floppy-breasted whores. Witchfinder was co-produced by American International Pictures and Tony Tenser’s Tigon Films, the third-man label in British horror behind Hammer and Amicus, who’d financed Reeves’s previous film, The Sorcerers. AIP demanded the casting of Price; Tenser and AIP’s Louis M. Haywood shot the egregious nudie stuff.
This is still, perhaps, the nearest to a pure vision that we have from Reeves. A little over a year after Witchfinder premiered, the director would be found in his Kensington flat, dead from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, a sad scene of wasted promise sometimes spoken of as a Chatterton-esque suicide. “No wonder he killed himself” sniggered one awful woman in front of me on the purgatorial post-screening escalator ride out of the MoMA basement, after Reeves’s masterpiece had weathered the typically-unworthy Roy & Nina Titus rabble. (This is the closest I have yet come to picking up a post-screening assault charge.)
Speaking of: Witchfinder General was infamous upon release for its free spilling of tempera-paint blood and especially for its interrogation scenes. Like the hysterical screams bouncing through the castle keep that close the film, Witchfinder’s violence continues to resonate—not for its delirious gratuitousness, but for the opposite qualities, for the matter-of-factness with which the violence is presented, grounded in the hard, corporeal world that surrounds it, with Reeves showing a documentary impulse when shooting drownings, hangings, auto-de-fé, beatings, and dagger-probings. This bluntness extends right through the brutality of the final confrontation between Marshall and Hopkins, a pummeling butchery that is nearly the exact antithesis of “swashbuckling,” one of those stomach-dropping bitter victories that Anthony Mann wrote the textbook on.
Witchfinder begins with a chilly sun glaring through bare branches, the first of several, and establishes the tenor of the times with the sound of a gibbet being hammered together, followed by a wailing procession towards a by-now-routine neck-stretching. The role that torture serves as a sexual parable, understood intuitively if at all by its accusers, practitioners, and witnesses, is not overlooked. Earthy Stearne is perhaps closest to openly comprehending his motives: “I do the pricking you know, not Matthew,” he cheekily confides. On one of Hopkins and Stearne’s assignments, a once-beautiful girl is disfigured and burnt in the village square on the accusation of a squat, nasty little townsman (Godfrey James) whose voice grows husky and aroused when Hopkins recruits him as an assistant. When her body finally starts to crackle, cutaways to a strapping young man wailing in the crowd complete the triangle, telling the whole story of petty sexual intrigues avenged under pretense of piety. “Strange, isn’t it, how much iniquity the Lord invested in the female?” muses Hopkins.
Playing loosely with the real-life characters of Hopkins and Stearne, the movie’s history doesn’t pass the A-levels according to most scholars. Reeves does catch the mythic truth of the era, if not the literal one, while thankfully not leaning on an as-relevant-today-as-ever witch hunt-as-flexible-political-metaphor reading—although Witchfinder has sometimes reductively been praised for this.
More than Arthur Miller, Reeves was an acolyte of American action movies generally, and in particular of Don Siegel, with who Reeves began a lifelong fan-mentor correspondence when he was still a public school boy. To his English subject matter, Reeves introduced Siegel’s classicist film grammar, his Roman clarity, axiomatic characterizations, sense of place, and narrative trajectory.
In short, Witchfinder paints John Ford tropes in John Constable colors. Among the identifiable Western elements, there are self-applied field surgeries and thundering horseback chases. England is here become a vast territory, where news travels slowly; per one interrogated fisherman: “I didn’t know there was a war on ‘til you gentlemen told me so.” Oliver Cromwell (Patrick Wymark) appears, sketched as belching, stub-fingered, greasy-lipped strongman, like nothing so much as a South-of-the-border generalissimo, while Wilfrid Brambell’s horse trader is in the Western’s great tradition of the character-actor stocked backwoods. Meeting on the Anglo-American common ground of obsession with due process, Witchfinder is set in a period of suspended rule-of-law, and the plot hinges on an oath of vigilante justice: “There’ll be no Magistrates involved,” swears Marshall, dreaming of settling his score with Hopkins. (Recently and much more lavishly, Bertrand Tavernier beautifully brought Delmer Daves crane shots to France’s own social-breakdown Wars of Religion in 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier.)
Reeves didn’t live to profit from Witchfinder’s success—at the time of his death he was preparing The Oblong Box for Price—but it was a breakthrough for DP John Coquillon, who caught the gloaming light over churchyard cemeteries and subtle tones of black bracken and fallow earth. Shooting Constable’s own Suffolk countryside in damp October, Reeves and Coquillon created a landscape of where death lurks behind bucolic stillness. Beginning with 1971’s Straw Dogs, Coquillon went on the shoot several films for another onetime Siegel acolyte, Sam Peckinpah. It should be noted that there is a detail in Witchfinder of children obliviously roasting potatoes in the ashes of a burnt witch, which anticipates the sadistic moppets cluttered around the ring-of-fire scorpion fight in The Wild Bunch. And if Michael Reeves remains, necessarily, a film-history footnote, let that footnote read that at least this once, he evoked a cruel and venal Olde England that rivaled Peckinpah’s West.