Witchfinder General — book review

WITCHFINDER GENERAL by Ian Cooper. Auteur £9.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

Media studies publisher Auteur’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series is a new line of novella-length books that examines iconic horror films. This title, featuring Michael Reeves’ 1968 masterpiece, comes out along with another that explores Let the Right One In, and there are further titles planned that will look at Saw and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Michael Reeves only made three films before dying at the age of twenty-five. When a fractious Vincent Price said he’d made eighty-four films and asked how many films Reeves had made, he famously replied, ‘Three good ones.’ This apocryphal story says more about the tension between the two men on set than it does about Reeves. Anyone who has seen The She Beast or The Sorcerers can hardly rate them as quality films; excuses can be made because of the small budgets, but the fact is that they are not very good. Witchfinder General, however, remains a powerful, violent and alarming film. It’s based on Ronald Bassett’s 1966 novel which took as its source material the real-life sixteenth-century atrocities of Matthew Hopkins, who spread terror across south-east England as he tortured and executed huge numbers of innocents. In the film Hopkins is played with great restraint by Vincent Price who gives one of the best (and most chilling) performances of his career. Ian Ogilvie, as a young Roundhead trooper, is the one who must try and stop Hopkins from shattering his family.

Cooper’s book is intended for people who are already familiar with the film and have a deep interest in it. One problem becomes instantly apparent: Reeves’ body of work offers little else to compare it with, and wondering where it might have stood in relation to his later work can offer up no more than guesswork. We could also have stood for a bit more on the career of Bassett, and even that of Hopkins himself, but, short of including a script, Cooper is very good when dealing with the making of the film, its variant editions, and its critical reception.

He also adequately covers the films that drew on Witchfinder General, including the brief horror wave that aped it. Reeves was a cineaste and Cooper explores the work of the directors who influenced him. Again, that presents a problem that is not of Cooper’s making; some of them, such as Don Siegel, had still to make some of their most notable films at the time of Reeves’s death, a fact which occasionally leads Cooper up blind alleys. Cooper does, however, make a convincing case for placing the film in the ‘heritage film’ (or costume drama) genre in the years before Merchant Ivory arrived and gave it an unnatural polish.

There’s no index for this short book but there is a five-page bibliography for those who wish to investigate further.

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