Witchfinder General (1968)
Alternative Version-Uncut Feature
Featurette-Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves
Music Video-Mathew Hopkins-Cathedral
Trailer-Cradle of Fear; Shallow Grave; The Stepfather;
|Year Of Production||1968|
|RSDL / Flipper||Dual Layered||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||Michael Reeves|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
"...Surely one of the most revolting horror pictures to be released by a major studio in the sixties." – Stephen King, Danse Macabre
Sometimes mistaken as a Hammer production, Witchfinder General still carries with it an air of notoriety three decades after it was made. The Australian cinema prints and VHS rental tape all inherited cuts imposed by the British censors, thereby fuelling endless speculation among horror fans about what was actually missing. Today it plays something like a brutal docu-drama made for the Discovery Channel. In its own time, Witchfinder General was a precursor to the new wave of violent cinema led by the likes of A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, directed by Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah respectively. Widely acknowledged as cinema classics, these controversial films could not be dismissed as B-movies because the calibre of filmmaking was beyond reproach. So it was, on a smaller scale, with Witchfinder General – a subversive work that succeeds on many levels.
Director Michael Reeves, the man ostensibly credited with that success, was in his early twenties at the time, having made two feature films after serving an apprenticeship on a number of Hollywood productions. His cinephile sensibility, infectious enthusiasm, and innate talent for telling stories in his chosen medium ensured that the source novel by Ronald Bassett, and the subsequent screenplay Reeves co-wrote with Tom Baker, would translate into a memorable film that remained true to the spirit of the characters and the historical milieu being depicted, circa 1645.
As the opening narration says, the period is one of turmoil for England, with frequent clashes between the rebels in the Royalist Party of King Charles and the Roundhead Troopers in General Cromwell's Parliamentary Party disturbing the tranquillity of the countryside. This political unrest is fertile ground for opportunists like Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), a lawyer who takes advantage of the superstitious paranoia about witchcraft by travelling from town to town, fishing for alleged cases of devil worship and charging for his services. He is accompanied by John Stearne (Robert Russell, Chained Heat 3 and Escape Velocity), a toad of a man who is responsible for exacting confessions from would-be witches. One such hapless soul is Father John Lowes (Rupert Davies, Frightmare and The Oblong Box), the uncle of young Sarah Lowes (Hilary Dwyer, Cry of the Banshee and also The Oblong Box). Distressed by this blatant persecution and the abuse dished out by Hopkins and Stearne, Sarah's husband-to-be Trooper Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, who looks like a young Anthony Hopkins) vows to find the witchfinder despite his obligation to the ranks of the Parliamentary Party army.
Stephen King's reaction to the film is understandable, but it is an indirect compliment. Like all good dramas dealing with the darker side of human nature, Witchfinder General juxtaposes threads of tenderness alongside themes of injustice, torture and death. As told by Michael Reeves, this uncompromising approach is reinforced by the cynical, bleak ending of the picture, which was later echoed in the final moments of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Tenebrae (1982), to name two examples. Without such precedents, it must have seriously rattled audience expectations upon first viewing, hence its salacious reputation. Instances of humour are rare, although the presence of sheep along with human spectators at both of the execution set-pieces always provokes a chuckle, as does the in-bred farmer smirking as he turns a blind eye to rape. One of my favourite lines has Stearne snarling about a bruising encounter with Richard in a tavern: "I owe that jumped-up plough-boy a seeing to!" However, the camp tone of Reeves' earlier pictures is mostly absent here.
Further complicating matters is the fact that for its budget, the movie is so well made. Besides the ambitious direction of Reeves, Witchfinder General boasts a colourful cast, a terrific music score, lush cinematography and effective production design. While this DVD goes a long way toward doing justice to the film, the definitive restoration that Witchfinder General deserves has yet to eventuate.
Be that as it may, we can be grateful that the film has been restored to its original uncensored length and approximate aspect ratio. The excellent cinematography of John Coquillon, who would later work for Sam Peckinpah on Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron, and The Osterman Weekend, nevertheless shines through in this DVD presentation. (In hindsight, one can see the similarities between the look of those movies and Witchfinder General.) Filmed open matte, the framing here has a sliver of additional headroom to accommodate the 1.78:1 ratio, but other than that it looks fine. It is certainly an improvement on the full frame Merlin Video VHS rental tape, which ruins the careful compositions by letting the viewer's eye wander away from the key elements in each shot.
The transfer on our Umbrella Entertainment (AV Channel) DVD is identical to the UK Region 2 Metrodome/Salvation release. Marc Morris from Mondo Erotico was involved with the process. First posted on the Mobius Home Video Forum (MHVF) website, his abridged comments regarding this transfer appear below with his permission:
I worked on the original restoration for the Redemption VHS, and the movie was later sub-licensed to Metrodome. For the DVD we decided to do a completely new 16x9 telecine from the original negatives. However, on inspection, the negative had been cut to comply with the BBFC's original request for an X rating. I was able to source another negative via the BFI, but sadly this was also cut. After more searches, a print was found – which was also cut ... I certainly wouldn't have agreed to what was released, and had there been more time, a master from MGM would have been acquired as I had suggested. But as the movie had been sub-licensed to another company, it was their decision to release this version. This was mainly due to them having already 'sold it in' to the buyers and had already advertised a street date! The release date was fast approaching, and we had no choice other than to re-use the footage I'd originally used for the VHS release or leave out the cut scenes altogether. If I hadn't attended the telecine, it would have been a cut version that was released.
Note that I could not confirm exactly which source was employed. Sharpness and detail levels vary from shot to shot. Wide-angle and night-time shots in particular look softer than the rest of the feature, although this could be attributed to the low-budget production values and the usual difficulties with shooting on slower film stock. Across the board though, the image quality is more than acceptable. Many scenes look like they were taken straight off the original negative, such is their snap and vibrancy. Predictably, shadow detail does not approach the standard of latter-day transfers. Blacks sometimes appear chalky; at most other times they are perfectly jet. Many of the beautiful silhouette shots of trees and castles posed against overcast skies look grubby and washed out, and the day-for-night shots lose some gross elements.
The inserts containing restored footage appear to be derived from a video source, and as such they are coarser than the rest of the feature, with far less apparent detail, limited shadow detail, muted colours and video noise. They are also stretched horizontally due to being copied from a 4x3 source into a 16x9 format. Switching my widescreen TV into 4x3 mode restored these scenes to their natural proportions.
Colour saturation is terrific when shooting conditions were ideal, which applied to 90% of the feature. For examples look no further than the red undershirts and blue hat feathers of General Cromwell's Parliamentary Party soldiers, which virtually pop off the screen. The verdant backdrop of the various exterior locations around England also come to life in ways never before seen in this film on home video. With its washed out, overly bright appearance, the Aussie VHS rental does not compare. There are no instances of colour bleed and skin tones are accurate.
Film artefacts in the form of white speckles and other random markings are frequent, though not distracting. Film grain shows up in the usually problematic darker scenes. Instances of mild edge enhancement are visible during some high-contrast transitions, for instance in the haunting shot of the man hammering bolts into the gallows on the hill. But given the age of the film and the source print used, how conspicuous the edge enhancement is will depend on your display device. Transfers of newer productions have boasted much more edge enhancement than this one. No compression artefacts were noticed, although there is telecine wobble from time to time.
Note that this DVD contains no subtitles. The layer change occurs near the end of the retrospective documentary at 17:59, thus leaving Matthew Hopkins to go about his persecutions uninterrupted. Lastly, seamless branching is used to offer two slightly different versions of the film, one that features topless nudity for international markets, and the other being Michael Reeves' intended version.
Dialogue is clearer than it is in the muddy VHS mix, but is nevertheless plagued with distortion when voices are raised above a modest level. Lip sync is not a problem, apart from instances of poor ADR.
The orchestrated music by Paul Ferris, who performed the same duties for The Sorcerers and later scored Monty Python and The Holy Grail, is richer and more agile than the exploitative subject matter deserves, but matches the scope and majesty that an ambitious young director of Reeves' character no doubt wished for. In other words, this is one of the classic horror movie scores of the period, never once over-reaching into melodrama or falling back into B-movie histrionics. While the quality of this transfer could have been better, the essence of each cue and motif nevertheless makes itself known. Thanks to the two-channel format, the music occupies a wider part of the front stage than a centre speaker arrangement could have managed without fiddling with DSP sound modes. Note also that Paul Ferris apparently has a cameo in the picture as Paul Clark, the grieving husband of the accused and roasted sorceress, Elizabeth Clark.
Still, the overall fidelity is limited. Dynamic range is lacking, separation is merely adequate, and high frequencies are prone to distortion, affecting the brass and string sections of the music. At times pops and crackles are audible, and a background hiss is ever-present. Furthermore, most of the audio placed over the handful of restored shots has been dubbed from parts of the existing soundtrack, for instance at 77:57 when Sarah's scream is repeated. In all fairness it must be said that these overdubs are not distracting, or immediately obvious for that matter.
Being mono, there are no directional pans or surround activity, but the Foley effects, dialogue and music score are well represented in mono despite the shortcomings of the source material. The subwoofer burped to life occasionally in order to handle some redirected front channel bass in my set up, and there is no centre channel activity. Finally, for some reason, there is an identical extra 2.0 soundtrack encoded on this DVD.
|Surround Channel Use|
The image is 16x9 enhanced throughout and features rather poor quality, over-exposed video for the interviews gathered, which of course does not matter that much. What counts is the content. The audio is average Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Footage from The She-Beast and The Sorcerers was cropped on the left and right sides. As mentioned above, the layer change occurs at 17:59 during this featurette, which is apparently a UK TV documentary abbreviated for DVD.
There is censorship information available for this title. Click here to read it (a new window will open). WARNING: Often these entries contain MAJOR plot spoilers.
NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.
The Region 4 DVD misses out on:
Witchfinder General was a landmark horror film in its day, shattering audience complacency while also garnering kudos from critics.
This DVD restores long-lost footage censored by the BBFC. The video quality is quite acceptable for a film this old. On the other hand, the audio distorts often, but it does have the original Paul Ferris music score. The extras are led by a superb little documentary about director Michael Reeves.
Lastly, how will MGM/Sony in the US handle the release of this title, known there as The Conquerer Worm?
|DVD||Pioneer DV-737, using Component output|
|Display||Loewe Ergo (81cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Marantz AV9000 Pre-amp.|
|Amplification||Arcam AV50 5 x 50W amplifier|
|Speakers||Front: ALR/Jordan Entry 5M, Centre: ALR/Jordan 4M, Rear: ALR/Jordan Entry 2M, Subwoofer: B&W ASW-1000 (active)|