18 Jul

“F” torture porn. This is sadism. Witchfinder General.

Posted by Bryan White | Wednesday July 18, 2007 | Reviews

Witchfinder GeneralAll this talk recently about so-called “torture porn” has been bugging the shit out of me. In case you’re just joining us, torture porn is a title coined by film critic David Edelstein for the recent rash of extreme splatter movies that, arguably, began with Saw. What is supposed to be a derrogatory term for a morally reprehensible subgenre has unfortunately been embraced by director/narcissist Eli Roth and the second wave of torture porn became even more gleefully excessive in its depiction of sadistic violence. The mainstream seems to be reeling from this sort of shit, but the truth is that this degree of violence has existed on the video market since the 60′s, it’s just that right now it’s hitting your local megaplex instead of some Times Square grindhouse. Shock!

As much as I liked The Devil’s Rejects, the first Hostel and the Saw movies, they don’t have any of the personality that the small fish on the video store horror shelves used to carry with them, so I broke out the original torture shocker, Witchfinder General to see a movie that had all the sadism of modern torture porn but filled in the blanks where they lacked with all the necessary dread and malice that only a British horror production could carry with it.

At the height of the British civil war in 1645, a roving Witch Hunter, claiming to be an official appointee of parliament, goes from town to town, encouraging the townspeople to out their least popular citizens as witches and sorcerors. They are tortured until a confession is made and then it’s off to the gallows whereupon the Witchfinder is paid for his service by the town magistrate. Elsewhere, a detachment of roundheads (soldiers in support of parliament) are nearly ambushed by royalists One of the roundheads, Richard Marshall, is granted a brief leave and goes home to his lady, Sara, and her uncle, the parson of Brandeston. Being Catholics, the parson and his niece are considered outsiders in this time of religious division. The parson gives his blessing to Richard and Sara’s marriage and after the two of them knock boots, Richard is off to battle again with the promise to return and marry Sara. On his way out of town, he passes Matthew Hopkins, the sinister Witchfinder and his torture artist, Steame. He unwittingly directs them to Brandeston where Hopkins will prey upon the very people he just left. The mob in Brandeston takes Hopkins right to the Parson who is immediately accused. Sara pretends to be only a servant and offers herself to Hopkins in an attempt to spare the Parson who is tortured anyway. Naturally, Hopkins gets some from Sara and it looks like her uncle will be spared. Instead of being executed, the Parson is thrown into the dungeon. Hopkins’ heavy, Steame, finds out why the parson was spared and goes to Sara to get some as well. He rapes her and when Hopkins finds out about this, he’ll have nothing more to do with her. The parson is hung, along with a couple of other locals. Shortly after Hopkins and Steame split, Richard shows back up and is horrified by what he finds. He marries Sara in an improv marriage and then swears revenge before the eyes of god.

I was introduced to Vincent Price at a very early age. I was graced with the fortune of a creature double feature on saturday afternoons and a lot of the Price features for AIP were routinely aired. By the time I saw this movie, I was used to the usual flamboyantly ghoulish performances that Vincent Price turned in, I was completely caught off guard by this movie. There are no sinister smiles or morbid puns, this is a very dark movie played with a deadly serious attitude. Price, as Hopkins, is a terrifying personality. In a lawless time, he’s little more than snake oil salesman roving the countryside for easy money, preying on superstitious country folk and collecting big money at a horrific cost. He’s not just cheating people out of their duckets, he’s leaving a mounting body count in his wake and it never occurs to him that there are probably better ways to swindle people. This is something that British writers and directors have excelled at. Sure, the movie is loaded with violence but it’s the context and circumstances that stay with you.

Witchfinder General is a very low budget production, filmed on the quick for less than 100,000 pounds. Unlike many movies that are hindered by their low budgets, the shortcuts often work in favor of this movie. Much of the movie takes place at night, using the Day For Night technique. The blue skies and dark foreground lend a creepy nightmare quality. Also, the movie loosely follows the travels of the real Matthew Hopkins, who operated during a time when gory torture was outlawed, so his techniques take on a much more creative, nasty approach. No one is being carved up in explicit detail on the level of Hostel, the beatings are brutal and Hopkins’ search for the devil’s mark, an identifying place on the body that won’t bleed as well as the water dunking are simply mean in their presentation. The thing that stays with you throughout, though, is the absurd tone of the witch hunt. No matter what you do, if you’re accused, you’re going to die. There is nothing you can do about it. If you’re dunked in the water and you float, you’re deemed a witch. If you drown, you’re innocent. You’re dead, but regrettably innocent. Your fate is sealed as soon as Hopkins strolls into town.

There was always something in British horror and sci-fi that struck a chord with me. Happy endings where the victims triumph over the villain were a rare occurance. Witchfinder General is no exception. While a resolution is made in the end, there are clearly no winners. The would-be victims survive but at a terrible cost. Famous British production companies such as Hammer and Amicus made scores of great genre movies with such typically drab endings. It is this quality that makes them so uique and even cemented them into the genre subcategory of Britsploitation. These were horror movies, to be sure, but they had qualities unique their home country that set them apart from American horror and even similarly themed Euro-productions like horror from Spain and France.

Witchfinder General may lack the explicit, over the top and extremely realistic torture scenes of modern torture porn, but the lurking air of dread puts it in a class above these recent horror entries that only want to make you squirm. The onslaught of mean, nasty torture splatter flicks want to take something away from you and from the looks of things, they’re doing quite well. I don’t want to stand on a soapbox and denounce these movies as tools of desensitization, but the recent example of the movie Captivity, which went back and shot sadistic torture scenes to appease the ticket buying masses who have come to expect that level of degradation is a little bit alarming. I say if you’re going to subject yourself to that degree of cruelty, at least put your money into a movie that gives you so much more in exchange. Witchfinder General’s brand of cruelty will stay with you. It’ll haunt you for some time after seeing it and it’ll certainly change the way you think of Vincent Price.

Order Witchfinder General at Amazon now!

6 Comments 

  1. July 28, 2007 7:21 pm

    Dave Munger

    I think the idea of calling movies like Saw “torture porn” isn’t so much that the violence and gore are excessive, as that the whole rest of the movie feels like just an excuse for the torture scenes. It’s like a movie where the pool guy comes by, gets mutilated, then they order a pizza and mutilate the pizza guy, then a blonde and an Asian girl mutilate each other. Then they tack on some kind of ending.

  2. July 29, 2007 4:37 am

    Bryan White

    That’s what I was implying about the whole thing. They’re not just violent. As intense as they are, I’ve seen worse. You pretty much sum it up right there, though. The violence is at the front of the movie and they really want you to see everything go down up close and personal. How you get to each torture scene is irrelevant.

    I would probably watch the movie you just described, though. It sounds hot.

  3. September 21, 2007 1:42 pm

    Lance Lawson

    Nice review. I have always felt that WG is one of the very best horror films to ever come out of the U.K. And you are so right about the tone. I saw this upon its first release in the States as a young teen at a drive-in when it was entitled “The Conqueror Worm”. I saw the infamous alignment of Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price, and went in expecting another campy American International entry. Not until Ken Russell’s “The Devils” would I again emerge from a screening in a such a state of shell-shock.

    The fact that this film has just (Sept. 2007) been re-released in the States on DVD under its original name is truly a gift from the gawds. This newly released version eliminates the American pre-credit Poe poem reading (which was added to take advantage of its successful Poe horror films), it offers a stunningly superior anamorphic transfer and also restores the original orchestral score by Paul Ferris that was eliminated for copyright reasons from previous US “Conqueror Worm” video releases.

    A brilliant film, both frightening and mesmerizing. And its political resonance remains timely, as we continue to view with suspicion those that look and worship in ways different from “us”.

    And the film is certainly worth remembering for the unfulfilled promise of its young director Michael Reeves, the Brit wunderkind who was 24 when he wrote and directed this, but sadly died a few months after its release of an overdose following a bout of depression. His premature loss stands with that of Jean-Claude Lauzon as among the most devastating premature departures in the history of cinema. “Witchfinder General” has long been declared one of the best British horror films ever made, and for very good reason.

  4. September 22, 2007 7:42 am

    Bryan White

    Thanks for the kind words, Lance. The new reissue is on my must-buy list. As of right now I have a crappy R2 that reinserts the cut bits from trashed vault prints. It’s quite jarring but you always know what has been restored since the footage looks a lot different.

    I don’t know what to make of old horror movies in the modern context. What you mention above about the political resonance is beginning to prove positive for a lot of movies from eras gone by. Horror has always been a mirror for our social condition but now more than ever, movies that were unique to the time they were produced are beginning to feel relevant again. American society’s complete misappropriation of priorities is easily visible upon watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Torture in the form of Witchfinder as well as the last wave of Hollywood horror has shown a rare outwardly visible bloodthirst by the American public and permissiveness of secret prisons and the things that go on on there. I mention the parallels between our government now and the government of Escape From New York.

    It’s pretty frightening when you put it all into context. Things are swinging back around, as it were.

  5. April 1, 2008 7:47 am

    Face Puncher

    Let us not forget that this is Vincent Price’s least favorite movie of his…

  6. October 19, 2011 9:33 pm

    Tim Mayer

    There is so much you can say about this film, it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s an old horror movie with a distinct focus on the British Civil War. And I feel it’s Vincent Price’s finest hour, even though his fights with the director are legendary (“Young man, I have been in over a hundred movies, how many have you directed?” “Three good ones!”). The final “You took him from me!” scene is one I can’t forget.


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