Michael Reeves’ MATTHEW HOPKINS - WITCHFINDER GENERAL has been released onto Blu-ray in a digitally re-mastered special edition courtesy of Odeon Entertainment. This director’s cut wisely omits several salacious tavern scenes of topless women included against Reeves’s wishes for various export markets, but which restores all the violence cut by the British censor for its original 1968 cinematic release.
Despite a cult following mainly consisting of horror enthusiasts, Reeves’ film is essentially a violent British revenge western set in the Suffolk countryside. The script by Reeves and Tom Baker is loosely based upon Ronald Bassett’s novel of the same name detailing the life of Matthew Hopkins, an English witchfinder responsible for the deaths of around 300 women during 1645 and up until his retirement in 1647. The methodology of the production was unusual since the storyline was written to accommodate both writers thematic interests; Reeves’ preoccupation with fatalism and Baker’s Utopian decadence and fascination for the natural beauty of the countryside. It is the interplay of these contrasting dynamics that have helped forge the film’s reputation amongst critics and the fresh feel of a production unhindered by re-writes, studio-sets, and its unconventional approach to filmmaking that have allowed the film to endure the test of time and earn a prominent position amongst the finest pieces of British cinema of the 60s.
Reeves injects his film with a degree of realism unlike the Roger Corman period-costume Edgar Allan Poe horrors of the 60s that American distributors marketed this as under the title of THE CONQUEROR WORM. This ridiculous alternative cut was accompanied with an alternative opening sequence in which Price narrates an excerpt from Poe’s poem of the same name which has nothing to do with the film Reeves manages to elicit a convincing performance from its titular lead, Vincent Price, who plays things straight and in complete contrast to the camp performances displayed in the actor’s Poe roles. Price is ably assisted by Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy and newcomer Hilary Dwyer in supporting roles that add several ambivalent traits to their personality that elevate the characterisations to a higher level than that afforded by the majority of 60s exploitation fare.
Aided by Paul Ferris’s romantically lyrical score and Johnny Coquillon’s sharp pictorial camerawork, the film captivates the viewer from the very first frame in which a shot of sunrays through trees depicts a metaphysical golden cross of light until the film’s final freeze-frame of a distraught Hilary Dwyer’s scream of insanity as it dissolves into black thus completing the cycle of light and dark (both spiritually and aesthetically) that pervade throughout. The powerful opening pre-credits sequence is effective for its fine use of geography; sound and action that help establish the scene engage viewer emotions and define its pantheological theme entwining the cycles of life, death, nature and religion. Accompanied by the gentle sound of wind blowing through trees the camera, placed at ground level, pans down from the oak trees and comes to rest on a herd of grazing sheep, Reeves then cuts to a shot of a gibbet builder and we hear natural sound for the first time as his mallet pounds into the wooden beams. The film then cuts to a mob led by a priest that drag a screaming woman from her village and up a hill as the camera pulls back behind them to show both gibbet and crowd in the same frame then tracks round to the side as they move closer to their destination. As the priest gives the final rites the camera zooms in and out of the faces then back to the woman who is hanged by the mob, the creaking of the swaying gibbet is heard as the crowd become silent once more as the camera tracks around once again before zooming in onto Hopkins who sits atop his white horse in the distance having viewed the fruits of his job. The film title appears and we hear Ferris’s quasi-traditional music for the first time as the titles run a series of bleached out shots of various victims faces.
From here the film switches focus to the English Civil War as we engage with a troop of Roundheads who survive a skirmish with a band of Royalists in which Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) saves the life of his Captain (Michael Beint) by shooting a wounded enemy sniper. This represents the first time Marshall has killed someone and he appears a little unnerved by the experience, displaying equal fear that the Captain might have died and allowing him to face, for the first time, the enormity of the horrors of war. As the film progresses, Marshall’s descent from humane god-fearing gentleman to selfish degenerate killer is signified by a series of encounters between Marshall, his fiancée, Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer), Hopkins and assistant torturer John Stearne (Robert Russell).
The inhumanity of man against his fellow species is a recurring theme in Reeves’s work. This predilection for violence and the assertion of his masculinity, often at the expense of the love for and of those close to him is explored here and in the director’s previous work THE SORCERERS (1967). The interplay between Marshall and Sara, whilst ambiguous, yields clues that Marshall sees Sara as a possession; a lover that ought to remain chaste and unblemished from the uncouth world around, both spiritually and physically, and Sara’s subsequent digression from this narrow-minded ideal leads Marshall to seek retribution on those that have sullied her even if it means forsaking his love for her. During an early exchange between Marshall and Sara’s father, parish priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies) it is revealed that Marshall had expressed a desire for her hand in marriage but had been refused. Now that the land is troubled by witch-hysteria Lowes fears for his daughter’s safety and grants Marshall the permission to marry Sara on the proviso that he takes her far away from the village. However, the witch-hunters arrive before Marshall can return from soldier duty and Lowes is wrongfully accused of being in league with the devil and hanged whilst Sara’s is violated by both Hopkins and later raped by Stearne. It would appear that Hopkins also shares corresponding values with Marshall for he appears to despise the local tavern women who flaunt their bodies for Stearne and other publicans but is happy to bed a Christian daughter of the clergy, referring to Sara as “child” in so doing reinforcing his belief in her virtuosity and relative purity as a sexual partner. Hopkins ravishes her having given her hope that her father would be released. True to his word, the witchfinder orders the torture of Lowes to be halted but later upon discovery that Stearne has raped her, Hopkins is no longer interested in an impure Sara and orders Stearne to proceed with the priest’s torture and execution.
Having learned that Sara agreed to a night of passion with Hopkins hoping to secure the release of her father from gaol Marshall swears an oath of vengeance. After taking Sara’s hand and having her kneel by his side at the desecrated church altar, Marshall releases her in order to take two hands to his sword as if to imply that his vendetta is now personal and of greater import than securing the hand of his fiancée. After, when Sara embraces Marshall the camera zooms in his eyes that fixate not on Sara but past her, intent on retribution. His fiancée is now tainted and secondary to his desires, having been sexually taken by both Hopkins and Stearne (though Sara has decided to keep that to herself, possibly due to the fact that she already senses that for Marshall, that would be one transgression too far). By the end of the film Marshall is so warped by his hatred for Hopkins he steadfastly refuses to relinquish his obsession even if it might possibly bring an end to the physical torture of Sara who now finds herself accused of witchcraft and made to suffer for her ‘sins’ at the hands of the witchfinder and his cronies.
In some respects the film recalls John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956) in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards roams the country intent on vengeance concerning a loved relative who has been “tainted” by a raiding party. Both directors utilize an extensive amount of countryside to mount their stories and incorporate framing devices to open and close their art. Ford’s framing devices include a man-made wooden doorway and natural cavern entrances to denote “openings and closings” whereas Reeves uses the structure of a wooden gibbet, natural trees and the cavernous chambers of an old mill combined with images and screams of victims to denote the cycle of terror and insanity. The films also include regular ‘stock’ actors as their gun-carrying protagonists: dark avengers whose minds have become twisted by the dubious motives behind a quest that is ultimately self-defeating. Another western that explores the theme of the rejected woman due to her being tainted by native Indians is Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966).
Reeves’ interest in the tradition of the western genre can also be found in the film’s score. Inspired by Elmar Bernstein’s theme for John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), Ferris provides a suitably sweeping score with its hyped up musical interludes accompanying galloping horses as they carry their riders across uninhabited country. Reminiscent, in parts, of the traditional folk tune “Greensleeves”, Ferris allegedly provided his services for free due to budget restraints. To this day, few British films have been able to weld action and music so effectively.
Equally lavish is Coquillon’s photography that captures the British landscape in all its splendour. Unlike the majority of horror films of the period that were studio-based, Reeves scouted the length of the countryside taking mental polaroids of landscape and old buildings whilst touring East Anglia in a hired car. A script was built to include sequences that combined action and landscape in which a series of sharp cuts and dissolves from picturesque shots of hillside and beaches to scenes of torture and burnings that helped convey the breakdown of English communities. Much of the finished compositions are a result of the director’s fascination with the graphic realism of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth whose depictions of American rural life induce a profound sense of melancholy that are ironically linked with the themes of the film and that of the fate of Reeves who tragically died of an accidental drug overdose, whilst battling depression, within a year of the film’s completion.
Considering the film was completed on a budget of just £100,000 by a 23-year old, MATTHEW HOPKINS – WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a master-class in the art of low-budget filmmaking. With its duelling visuals that include numerous religious iconography, both natural and manufactured, and its central storyline involving the persecution of people for supposed pagan activities Reeves’ film transcends the limitations of a film originally deemed as just an excuse for excessive violence and instead takes on an aspect of the outré. It is perhaps this underlying sense of mysticism that is responsible for its longevity as a genuine cult classic.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Michael Reeves
English language with optional subtitles for the hard of hearing
Studio: Odeon Entertainment
Audio Commentary with Michael Reeves biographer Benjamin Halligan and Director Michael Armstrong
MATTHEW HOPKINS - WITCHFINDER GENERAL