Witchfinder General (AKA The Conqueror Worm) (1968)
Distributor: Odeon Entertainment Ltd
Blu-Ray release date: 13th June (UK)
Directed by: Michael Reeves
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Heath
Review by: Stephanie Scaife
I only just recently got myself an HD TV and Blu-Ray player (I know, I know… I’m way behind) so I’m still at the stage of making “oooh” and “aaah” noises every time I watch something on Blu-Ray. For years I kept telling myself that surely it couldn’t be all that different to DVD, but now with hindsight I realise that I was being a fool. So now I have the pleasure of being able to review this brand new, digitally remastered, special edition of Michael Reeves’ seminal cult classic Witchfinder General, and what a delight it is too.
Witchfinder General is based on the novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett and it is a heavily fictionalized account of the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, a 17th century lawyer and self appointed “witchfinder-general” who used civil unrest as an opportunity to profit from rooting out so-called witches and devil worshippers. The novel was adapted for the screen by its young director Michael Reeves and Tom Baker, a long-time friend who’d worked with Reeves previously on The Sorcerers (1967) and it was produced by Tigon and American International Pictures for the relatively small budget of around £100,000.
Set in 1645 in East Anglia, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is a Roundhead soldier engaged to a young woman named Sara, the niece of local priest John Lowes. Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price, giving an uncharacteristically restrained performance) and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) travel around the region executing witches and charging the local magistrates for their “services”. As outcasts in their small village Sara and Lowes are immediately rounded up by Hopkins and accused of witchcraft. When Marshall discovers what has happened he returns home to find Sara traumatised and Lowes dead. Vowing revenge Marshall takes matters into his own hands and, without spoiling the ending for those few who have not seen the film, things end pretty badly for all those concerned.
I came to this film fairly late in life; of course I was a fan of The Wicker Man, but it has only been in the last year or so that I became aware of the rather fantastic if brief period during the late 60’s and early 70’s when the UK produced a number of occult themed horror films – now sometimes referred to as “folk horror”. Witchfinder General was one of the first films to be made that fit into this short lived sub-genre along with Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out starring Christopher Lee and the fantastic, yet often overlooked classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw. These films were an early sign of a major change taking place within the horror genre; they were less camp than the early Hammer films and more realistic than the Universal monster movies that audiences were accustomed to at the time. Not to mention that the levels of sex and violence often proved too much for the flummoxed and flustered BBFC who frequently demanded heavy cuts.
I’ve found Blu-Ray shopping to be a veritable minefield, with some companies sticking any old thing onto Blu-Ray merely to enable them to charge a few extra bucks when in reality the difference in quality compared to the DVD is negligible. However I’m pleased to report that Witchfinder General looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-Ray, and is a definite must have for any horror fan. This new edition also comes with some special features that are exclusive to Blu-Ray, including an audio commentary from Benjamin Halligan, author of Reeves biography and filmmaker Michael Armstrong, who had been an acquaintance of Reeves at the time of his death; the documentary “Bloody Crimes: Witchcraft”; an amusing clip from 1984 of Vincent Price giving a charismatic interview on Aspel & Company; the option to watch the scenes that were cut from the original UK theatrical release (although these are of noticeably poorer quality) and alternate opening and closing credit sequences. Other special features include an informative documentary about the life of Michael Reeves “The Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves” which offers some insight into the difficult working relationship he had with Vincent Price; Intrusion: Michael Reeves short film; the original theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
The disc offers no subtitles, an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, picture format 1080p 24fps AVC MPEG-4, audio Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and the Blu-Ray disc is playable in regions A, B & C and is released in the UK on Monday 13th June.