Vincent Price wasn't welcome on the set of the British horror film in which he was starring.
Michael Reeves, the young director of "Witchfinder General," wanted nothing to do with the king of generic horror movies. He'd demanded Donald Pleasence, but had been overruled.
Reeves initially refused to even speak with Price on the set, the new DVD's documentary says. The frigid treatment kept the actor on edge throughout shooting. Reeves made the old pro go through endless takes, until the cold-stare anger came through on film. The result is one of Price's finest performances. It was his 75th movie.
You might recall the film as "The Conqueror Worm," the title AIP used in the U.S. in an attempt to tie it in with its successful Edgar Allen Poe franchise. But "Witchfinder" had nothing to do with Poe or worms, at least not the ones found in the soil.
The more or less true story concerns mass-murderer Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed witch hunter of eastern England during the mid-1600s. His infamy was built on torture, bogus confessions and his patented witch test, in which the accused would thrown into a river. If they sank, they were absolved -- but dead by drowning. If they rose to the surface to breathe, that was proof of witchcraft and it was off to the gallows.
Reeves' camera feels hand-held jerky in the scenes where the terrified victims are prepared for hanging. Combined with quick-cut editing, the scenes offer a truly unnerving sense of what it might be like to dragged away by an insane mob and finished off by professional killers.
"Witchfinder General" didn't cost much but often feels like a bigger-budget film. The movie was quite capably cast and costumed. The locations (some of the actual sites) are gorgeous, photographed with an artist's touch. The production values seem more BBC than Hammer, reminiscent to me of Ridley Scott's "The Duelists."
Paul Ferris' lush but haunting soundtrack, replaced on earlier videos by a Moog synthesizer, returns to complete the film's restoration. The DVD looks quite good and the audio comes across strong and clear.
"Witchfinder" had the marketing tag "The Year's Most Violent Film." Maybe so. The 1968 release came when "violence was making its move" on mainstream movies," one of the film historians says in the extras. "Night of the Living Dead" had just been unleashed and "The Wild Bunch" would ride in the next year.
"Witchfinder" wasn't a typical horror film. Its terrors came from the depiction of physical and psychological torture -- frenzied confusion and despair -- not from the supernatural. The stabbings and shootings are realistic for the era, aside from the candy-apple red blood. All in all, a rough bit of time travel for the squeamish.
The DVD extras include an ancedote-rich commentary starring leading man Ian Ogilvy, a pal of director Reeves who went on to a long film and TV career. The talented Reeves, sadly, was a drug guy who didn't make it out of the Sixties. He directed three movies. (The biography docu "Blood Beast," about Reeves, appeared on a Region 2 version of the film, but not here.) The look-back documentary on "Witchfinder" is unusually good, fueled by the story of Reeves and Price. A must-see for new fans and old.
Hat tip to Chris Morris for recommending this frightfully (and surprisingly) good film.
Also in the DVD blog's Halloween series: "Hostel" in a director's cut Blu-ray, "The Damned Thing" from Tobe Hooper and the political ax-swinger "The Tripper."
More gore: In this killer year for horror movies on disc, your minion the DVD blog kept track of all the releases. Check out this unholy trio of posts: Halloween I, Halloween 2 and Halloween: The Final Chapter.