Witchfinder General (1968) Retrospective

In 1645, during the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins, an opportunist witchhunter, takes advantage of the breakdown in social order to impose a reign of terror in East Anglia. Hopkins and his assistant, John Stearne, visit village after village, brutally torturing confessions out of suspected witches. They charge the local magistrates for the work they carry out.

Richard Marshall is a young Roundhead. After surviving a brief skirmish and killing his first enemy soldier (and thus saving the life of his Captain), he rides home to Brandeston, Suffolk, to visit his lover Sara. Sara is the niece of the village priest, John Lowes. Lowes gives his permission to Marshall to marry Sara, telling him there is trouble coming to the village and he wants Sara far away before it arrives. Marshall asks Sara why the old man is frightened. She tells him they have been threatened and become outcasts in their own village. Marshall vows to Sara, “rest easy and no one shall harm you. I put my oath to that.” At the end of his army leave, Marshall rides back to join his regiment, and chances upon Hopkins and Stearne on the path. Marshall gives the two men directions to Brandeston then rides on.

In Brandeston, Hopkins and Stearne immediately begin rounding up suspects. Lowes is accused at his home and tortured. He has needles stuck into his back (in an attempt to locate the so-called “Devil’s Mark”), and is about to be killed, when Sara stops Hopkins by offering him sexual favours in exchange for her uncle’s safety. However, soon Hopkins is called away to another village. Stearne takes advantage of Hopkins’ absence by raping Sara. When Hopkins returns and finds out what Stearne has done, Hopkins will have nothing further to do with the young woman. He instructs Stearne to begin torturing Lowes again. Shortly before departing the village, Hopkins and Stearne execute Lowes and two women.

Marshall returns to Brandeston and is horrified by what has happened to Sara. He vows to kill both Hopkins and Stearne. After “marrying” Sara in a ceremony of his own devising and instructing her to flee to Lavenham, he rides off by himself. In the meantime, Hopkins and Stearne have become separated after a Roundhead patrol attempts to commandeer their horses. Marshall locates Stearne, but after a brutal fight, Stearne is able to escape. He reunites with Hopkins and informs him of Marshall’s desire for revenge.

Hopkins and Stearne enter the village of Lavenham. Marshall, on a patrol to locate the King, learns they are there and quickly rides to the village with a group of his soldier friends. Hopkins, however, having earlier learned that Sara was in Lavenham, has set a trap to capture Marshall. Hopkins and Stearne frame Marshall and Sara as witches and take them to the castle to be interrogated. Marshall watches as needles are repeatedly jabbed into Sara’s back, but he refuses to confess to witchcraft, instead vowing again to kill Hopkins. He breaks free from his bonds and stamps on Stearne’s face, at the same time that his army comrades approach the castle dungeon. Marshall grabs an axe and repeatedly strikes Hopkins. The soldiers enter the room and are horrified to see what their friend has done. One of them puts the mutilated but still living Hopkins out of his misery by shooting him dead. Marshall’s mind snaps and he shouts, “You took him from me! You took him from me!” Sara, also apparently on the brink of insanity, screams uncontrollably over and over again.

In 1968 Tigon embarked on what Tenser thought was just another modestly budgeted horror film, it proved to be one of the most controversial films Tigon ever made, it almost ended the career of its director before it really began and it finished any hope Tenser had of a long-term relationship with AIP.

After completing The Sorcerers, Curtis and Reeves resurrected The Devil’s Discord, a haunted house movie heavily influenced by Mario Bava, now repackaged to star Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee.

Tenser was no more impressed with the script than he had been the first time round, and urged Reeves to think again. In the meantime he had The Blood Beast Terror in preproduction and rather cheekily announced that Tigon’s next film would be The Horrors of Frankenstein, featuring an “international star cast.” The producer later conceded that Tigon did not have a script for the Frankenstein project, he was merely testing the water to see what reaction he would get.

The response from Hammer House was swift and uncompromising, they sent Tigon a stiffly worded letter exercising their prerogative over the character. Although Mary Shelley’s book was long out of copyright the films weren’t and James Carreras clearly felt a proprietary claim. By then Tigon had moved on. Tenser had been treated to lunch by a former colleague, now at the publishing house Herbert Jenkins Ltd, who happened to have galleys for a new book that he thought would make a terrific film. The book, written by Ronald Bassett, still some months from being published, was a pot-boiler set against the chaos of the English Civil War and featuring the gruesome exploits of a minor historical character called Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General.

Recognizing the screen possibilities in Ronald Bassett’s historical adventure novel Witchfinder General. about the 17th-century reign of terror of real-life British witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, Tenser felt it would be ideally suited to his talented young protégé, Michael Reeves. “The publisher sent me the galley proofs, and I read it through,” he recalls. “I thought it would make a wonderful film, but a lot more expensive than my other pictures, so I would have to look for a partner. If it was done correctly, it would be affordable. I took an option on the film rights straight away.

“I showed the novel to Michael, who was very keen on it.” Tenser continues. “I then spoke to ‘Deke Heyward, and we made a deal. AIP felt that it would enhance their market if Vincent Price played Matthew Hopkins. They paid for his salary. and put up additional money towards the budget. I was totally happy with that, because Price would enhance my market as well.”

Curwel would be back, as would Miller and Long. Reeves and Baker would direct and write respectively and Boris Karloff would essay the title role. That vision fell apart almost immediately. Even a perfunctory glance at Bassett’s book revealed Karloff was in no physical state to play Hopkins, Curtis and Welch were busy with other projects, and although Stanley Long started out with the best of intentions and duly joined Reeves to scout locations, he quickly remembered why The Sorcerers was such a difficult shoot and withdrew his services. That left Reeves who, although not enamoured with the idea of another horror movie, was excited by the possibilities offered by the tale, another journey into the darker side of man’s nature. Reeves saw a Jacobean revenge tragedy played against a bloody struggle; he envisaged raging battles, scarred landscapes and human drama, and he saw Donald Pleasence, who could have epitomised the phrase the ‘ordinariness of evil’, as the petty, corrupt and corrupting Matthew Hopkins.

Leaving Tenser to set up the deal and Tom Baker to fashion a suitable screenplay, he jumped in his sports car and screeched off to East Anglia hoping to find the unspoiled landscapes he needed for his epic.

Without Curtwel on board Tenser needed a partner and contacted Louis ‘Deke’ Heyward, the newly installed Head of European Production for AIP, the Hollywood exploitation giants behind Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films and the seemingly endless stream of Beach movies. Heyward had never heard of Reeves but he liked the script and seeing it as an ideal way to announce AIP’s presence in London, he secured the agreement of his paymasters Samuel Z Arkoff and James Nicholson to provide £32,000 of the estimated £80,000 budget. In exchange, AIP obtained the North American rights and the right to appoint a suitable star name in the title role. For the company that made, House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the term ‘star name’ was attached to only one actor, Hollywood’s favourite bogeyman Vincent Price.

Assigned to Witchfinder General as part of his long-term AIP contract, Price chafed at what he considered to be brusque behavior and perfunctory direction from Reeves—who had originally wanted diminutive Donald Pleasence for the sadistic title role. “There was friction between Michael and Price,” Tenser says. “It was mainly due to their different personalities and experiences. Price had made a great number of films, and had a worldwide reputation as an actor. He came to England, where he had not often worked, and spent most of his time in Norfolk, which is a fairly desolate place. Witchfinder was being directed by a chap in his early 20s, who had only made two small-budget pictures, and Price might well have thought, ‘What am I subjec vear a better letting myself in for?’

“I don’t think he was shown either of Michael’s earlier films.” Tenser adds. “He may not have known how young Michael was until he met him. Price was the old hand. When he was told to do something by such a young director, it wasn’t the same as being told by a veteran. However, he never complained to me. We used to have a drink and a chat in the hotel bar, and he would tell me about looking for paintings during his off hours. He was a true art connoisseur, and was very well versed on the subject.”

Despite their 25-year age difference, Tenser related much better to Reeves than did the unhappy Price. “I was like an uncle to Michael,” he states. “If we had a difference of opinion, it was quiet. There was no shouting or screaming-pragmatism ruled. I had a great liking for Michael, because he was a real film buff. He ate, drank and slept films. He came from quite a wealthy family, and started making films when he was a young boy. That was all he wanted to do with his life.”

Tenser, who was well versed in the less than subtle art of marketing a film, accepted the American star with good graces, Reeves did not. The immaturity that marked his work on The Sorcerers erupted again. While Reeves sulked in East Anglia, Heyward was appealing to Price’s vanity and assured the actor that his young director, “wafted off in a fairylike cloud of ecstasy when he heard we were casting you in the lead.” The battle lines were drawn for a conflict that would last the duration of the shoot.

The crew and cast, including Vincent Price, were housed in a local inn where by all accounts the nightly carousing was more raucous than anything seen on the screen. Having secured the title role for Price, the British were allowed a free hand with the remainder of the cast. Tenser wanted character actors Rupert Davies and Patrick Wymark on board after their success on television in Maigret and The Power Game and both were available for relatively modest sums. The former came in for a day to play Oliver Cromwell while the latter would be made to earn his fee as John Lowes, a priest victimized by Hopkins and subjected to various degrading tortures.

Reeves was given a free hand to cast the other roles and hired Ian Ogilvy to play the heroic Richard Marshall, a Roundhead trooper who finally tracks down and kills Hopkins. Hilary Dwyer, described by Tenser with his tongue well in cheek as the ‘next Vivian Leigh’, played the innocent Sara Lowes, used and abused by both Hopkins and his loathsome sidekick Stearne (Robert Russell). Dywer provided an early controversy for Reeves over his decision to shoot her nude for the love scene, a poignant moment intended as a prelude to the violence. ‘It just wasn’t done in those days,” Dwyer explained, “a few years later, everyone was stripping. I was terrified I spent the whole time thinking, my God, my mum and all her friends are going to see my boobs!”

The differences of opinion over nudity were nothing compared with the open conflict between director and star. Reeves started as he meant to go on by refusing to be part of the welcoming committee at Heathrow airport – a normal courtesy in those genteel days. He then deliberately shocked Price on the first day of shooting by announcing in front of cast and crew that he had wanted Donald Pleasence for Hopkins.

The atmosphere between star and director, having started off badly, got worse. Price was openly contemptuous and referred to Reeves as “the boy genius”, while the director could barely bring himself to talk to Price at all. Things came to a head with the infamous confrontation when Reeves kept telling the actor to “tone down” his performance without being too specific on what precisely he wanted. According to witnesses Price puffed out his chest and in his distinctive tones bellowed, “Young man, I have made 95 movies, how many have you made?” Reeves’ dismissive retort, “two good ones,” summed up everything he felt for his star. Views are mixed on whether Reeves was deliberately goading the star into delivering a more realistic performance or whether he was petulantly taking out his disappointment on the most obvious target. Either way, Price was not amused, and when he fell from his horse and suffered minor bruising he retreated to his bed, refusing to re-emerge until the producers—not the director— had assuaged his hurt pride.

In the meantime Tenser had more pressing concerns, specifically around the budget. Reeves’ original intention to shoot the Battle of Naseby had already fallen foul of cost cutting after Tenser allegedly told him to stage the conflict with “six extras and a lot of fog”. The battle would be referred to in the dialogue rather than seen on screen. But even those measures didn’t keep Reeves to schedule, though unlike with The Sorcerers the director was largely exempt from blame.

Even with the AIP money, the budget was tight and Tigon economised by renting World War Two aircraft hangars to use as a production base and to shoot some of the interiors. As much as possible the film was shot in and around the actual locations in Norfolk and Suffolk, including a suitably redressed Lavenham village and Orford Castle; while locals and cadets from the Territorial Army were recruited as extras for the now infamous witch burning scenes.

Originally budgeted at a modest 82.000 pounds-of which Tenser contributed 50,000 and AIP 32,000, including 12,000 for Price’s salary Witchfinder General cost considerably more than anticipated. “The film went nearly 20.000 pounds over budget,” Tenser reveals, and I made up the difference. I didn’t ask AIP for their share of it, because that wasn’t part of our agreement. I felt it would be unfair of me to ask. It was a significant amount of extra money, but we had an outstanding film. Except for the Western Hemisphere, which belonged to AIP, I had the rest of the world to sell it in. I knew it would get a circuit release in England, so the extra money wasn’t wasted.

“Witchfinder went over budget because it was an unwieldy film to manage as far as costs were concerned,” the producer points out. “We ran into circumstances which weren’t Michael’s fault. We had lots of people traveling around in Norfolk, which is a relatively unpopulated county. We had to watch out for rain all the time. We shot in Orford Castle at night with spotlights, because we couldn’t shoot day for night. For all those reasons, it took longer to make.”

The decision to shoot in the middle of the English autumn meant that Reeves could have an array of colours for his landscapes, but the production was constantly battling against the elements. They also found that low flying RAF jets ruined take after take. As this was a Tigon film and AIP’s commitment was fixed, Tenser had no choice but to absorb the additional costs within his own cash flow and simply chalk it up to experience. Having finally completed the film, Reeves screened a rough cut for John Trevelyan who was happy to confirm in writing, “I do not think this film is likely to give us much trouble.” Despite all his experience, the British censor was vastly underestimating the impact that music and sound effects would have on Reeves’ uncompromising staging, to say nothing of the juxtaposition of the stunning cinematography (courtesy of John Cocquillon) and the stark brutality of the violence.

Reeves was annoyed when he found Tigon insisting on a “continental” version of the tavern scenes. To spare the director’s blushes, Reeves was given a leave of absence for the day and two models Tenser had drafted in for the precise purpose of stripping off on screen did exactly what they were paid to do. Everyone it seems was mildly embarrassed by the whole thing and most of the footage consigned to a bottom drawer somewhere in the Tigon offices. More than the nudity, Tenser was concerned about the blood-letting and felt distinctly uneasy when he visited the location and saw the buckets of Kensington gore being lined up for the next scene.

“I pulled Michael Reeves aside,” Tenser revealed, “and said, Michael you can’t do that. I said as realistic as you want to make it, but you can’t have a fella’s guts spilling out or what looks like guts spilling out. I said the censor won’t pass it, you have got this entire scene, and you shot it, all the actors and its going to be cut.” Reeves did moderate his approach but it would not save the film from the censor’s knife.

The censor was already alerted to potential difficulties with Tigon after early drafts of the script (called The Witchfinder General) were greeted with open contempt at the BBFC; one reviewer could barely disguise his disgust and wrote, “This ape Tenser will continue to be a time-wasting nuisance until the board puts him in his place.” Ten days after the BBFC rejected the first script, Tenser had the second in their in-tray, suggesting the first was purely putting down a marker and later revisions of the script toned down the violence further without ever getting close to the sanitised version the censor was suggesting.

When the finished print was sent for assessment the BBFC felt they had no choice but to request a series of cuts including a reduction in John Lowes’ screams, the whole sequence showing the strangulation of a female prisoner, cuts to the witch burning scenes and the vicious slaying of Hopkins.

In a letter to the censor dated 7th of April 1968, Reeves set out his argument for the brutality in his film saying, ‘its overall message is as anti-violence as it can be. Violence breeds violence, and that end – violence – is insanity. To put that over to a paying audience, particularly one who is paying to enjoy a vicarious thrill from once-removed sadism, surely this cannot be anything but moral?”

The negotiations continued in a businesslike fashion, helped no doubt by the friendship and mutual admiration that had built up between Tenser and Trevelyan over the years. In a classic case of gamekeeper turned poacher, Trevelyan when he retired from the BBFC in 1970 joined the board at Tigon!

Witchfinder General was finally awarded its ‘X’ certificate on 26th of April 1968, but the censorship debate was really just beginning. The press were predictably outraged and although some critics saw the intelligence at work most were disgusted by the visuals. The Sunday Telegraph called it, “an exercise in sadistic extravagance all the more repugnant for being ably directed,” while The Guardian’s critic thought; “the film is less concerned with narrative than exploiting every opportunity for gratuitous sadism, lingering over hangings, protracted torture sessions, rape and mutilations.” Allan Bennett then took up the cudgel on behalf of Middle England and attacked the film with such vitriol in The Listener that Reeves felt compelled to respond. This was all grist to the mill for the Tigon marketing team, the more damning the reviews the more they could use them to build up the film. When one local council decided to ban it, Tenser took out adverts in the local press telling the public which cinemas were showing it in adjacent areas.

After he shot his last scenes, the bloody climax when Hopkins is hacked to death, Price fled back to London telling anyone who would listen that Witchfinder General was a disaster and would be unceremoniously dumped into second run cinemas. Safely ensconced in Hollywood, Vincent Price had the opportunity to see what an impact Reeves’ constant provocation had on his performance, and to his credit he took the time to write to the director and compliment him on the finished work. The actor later summed up the experience of working with Reeves saying, it was “a very sad experience…he was very unstable…difficult but brilliant.” The version that Price had seen was slightly different from the British version; AIP had exercised their option to cut the film any way they liked and had added a prologue with Price reading some lines from a Poe poem. The film was then re-titled The Conquer Worm and released as the next in the Poe series; Deke Heyward awarded himself an “additional scenes” credit for that masterstroke! By the time the cash registers started ringing for Witchfinder General, Tenser had offered Reeves a long-term contract and was confident enough to announce they would be collaborating on Hooligans Mob and The Amorous Trooper, another novel by Ronald Bassett.

Before starting on his Tigon movies, Reeves was committed to AIP for The Oblong Box, which reunited him with Vincent Price and Hilary Dwyer. Both Tenser and Heyward were aware that Reeves was battling his own demons. The medication he was taking had led to mood swings on both the Tigon pictures and continued to blur his judgement as he started pre-production on the AIP film. Before a frame had been shot, Heyward had Reeves removed from the director’s chair, which further undermined his fragile self-confidence, but Tenser continued to support the younger man and was confident he would soon be back in the Tigon office to discuss preparation on his next movie.

That expectation was tragically shattered when the phone rang on the 11th February and Tenser was informed that Reeves had died from an apparent drug overdose. He was only 25 years old.

Witchfinder General (1968) Paul Ferris
Witchfinder General’s celebrated score was composed by Reeves’ friend Paul Ferris, who had previously scored The Sorcerers, and acted in the film under the alias “Morris Jar” (a reference to his favourite composer, Maurice Jarre). He drew inspiration from the folk song “Greensleeves” in writing the romantic theme “Peaceful Interlude” as a means of evoking its time period, as well as to serve as a counterpoint to the film’s violence. Film critic Tim Lucas has compared the score to that of Marcello Giombini’s music for the swashbuckler film Knives of the Avenger (1966), noting that both films are “historical melodrama[s] that function as metaphorical Westerns”.

Ferris’ ambitions clashed with Tenser; the composer hoped to have the score performed with traditional Elizabethan instruments, a creative choice that Tenser vetoed for budgetary reasons. He instead conducted a 55-piece orchestra with whom he recorded at Olympic Studios in February 1968; he paid most of the performers’ wages with his own money when Tenser refused to sanction additional funds, although he was later reimbursed after Tenser was impressed with his efforts. Ferris sold the publishing and master rights for the soundtrack to De Wolfe Music, who incorporated it into their large library of stock music and released the score, alongside Peter Knight’s music for the Tigon/AIP film Curse of the Crimson Altar, on their album Strange Location, credited to the “London Studio Orchestra”. Many of Ferris’ tracks have been utilised in a wide variety of films and TV programmes.

Michael Reeves

Louis M. Heyward
Philip Waddilove
Arnold Miller

Tom Baker
Michael Reeves

Additional Scenes:
Louis M. Heyward

Witchfinder General
by Ronald Bassett

Vincent Price
Ian Ogilvy
Rupert Davies
Wilfrid Brambell
Patrick Wymark
Robert Russell
Nicky Henson
Hilary Dwyer

Paul Ferris

Cinefantastique v22n01
Dark Side#55
Starburst Magazine#046
Vincent Price Midnight Marquee Actors Series

One thought on “Witchfinder General (1968) Retrospective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s