Monthly Archives: January 2014

Witchfinder General (1968)

Synopsis:

Matthew Hopkins is the Witchfinder General, a man touring the country to cleanse the populace of witches. However, when his next target is the daughter of an elderly priest, her  roundhead fiancé seeks revenge on the Witchfinder.

Review:

To begin with, don’t expect some soft 1960s hammer-type production.  Michael Reeves’s movie is a gloomy historical yarn with the iconic Vincent Price in, without question, his most frightening role. Price discards the amusingly camp persona so usual of his horror career in pursuit of a devilish performance of a man rotten to the core and bent on carnal gratification of the highest degree.

The horror in Witchfinder has nothing to do with Witches. For sure, there is no hint of the supernatural here. Reeves’s disgust is with the mob hysteria and corruption of local officials, self-proclaimed kings of their districts who dish out both “justice and injustice in equal measure”. Price’s unreserved turn as Matthew  Hopkins is the embodiment of such a man.

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The soundtrack instantly grabs you right from the opening credits, transporting you to an England torn apart by war and feeding off religious superstition. The look of the film is tremendous, with flashy 17th century costumes anointing every scene and set-design of the highest calibre. The re-creation of 17th century England is probably the best I have seen. The movie is driven forward by a meticulous script dressed with Price’s mastery of high English elocution. Some of the best lines uttered by Price are “Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do….” and  “They swim….the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang”.

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But it’s not just the script which gives Witchfinder the allure of a valuable gemstone, it’s the cast. Before we even considering Price’s domineering performance, we have a young Ian Ogilvy as the roundhead captain out for revenge and vastly under-rated character actor Rupert Davies as a wrongfully accused Priest, who ends up being dangled from a bridge and hung. Hilary Dwyer plays the girl-in-peril, hand-picked by Price as a witch who must confess by pleasuring his wordly desires. Dwyer does a sterling job, and isn’t simply there for the aesthetics. In the closing moments she really comes out of her shell as her tortured screams echo around the stone walls of the castle atop the hill. This finale is cannily shot like some sort of deranged cartoon with silhouettes racing up the hill towards a castle to rescue our protagonists from the macabre clutches of Price.

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It’s surprising, but true, that some of the scenes in Witchfinder are still uncomfortable to watch today.  The scene in which Price burns a witch by slowly lowering her from a wooden crucifix into a funeral pyre is one of them. Others are lingering shots of corpses hanging from trees with the only sound that of a creaking noose audible over the still country air.

Overall, a wickedly-crafted movie  rare in both  its brutality and style. Up there with the best British horror movies of all time.

Hotdog rating: 9.5/10

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new BBFC guidelines and horror

The BBFC have recently published new guidelines in relation to film classification. Whilst there is little to be outraged by, there is one change which is uncomfortable for me.

The new guidelines are here: http://www.bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/BBFC%20Classification%20Guidelines%202014.pdf

These updated guidelines are based on new research. The BBFC commissioned a major public consultation, involving over 10,000 respondents into attitudes towards film and video content and its classification – with the new guidelines accordingly reflecting the responses to this consultation. The research report and methodology can be accessed at this link:

http://www.bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/2014%20Guidelines%20Research.pdf

Now, the research recommends the following, which the BBFC have taken up in the new guidelines:

“the BBFC should take into account the psychological impact of horror as well as strong visual detail, such as gore;”

This recommendation is based on public responses stressing the psychological impact of a horror film – particularly where the supernatural is involved – was just, if not more, important than the level of gore or violence.

Part of the reason for this response could be to do with the controversial classification of The Women in Black as 12A (and this is picked up as the movie with the most disagreement amongst the public – 18% of respondents differed from the BBFC in its classification) but I also feel that the sample in the latest consultation exercise may be playing a role. Two things are worth noting about this sample relative to the 2009 sample used in the same exercise at the time. There are now (1) more women represented, and (2) more people who identify themselves as having a religious affiliation. I would think it therefore reasonable to suspect that this is linked to the findings in regard to the “psychological” impact of horror movies. The latter demographic group is more likely to be concerned with the supernatural whilst the former typically respond in a more maternal way with regard to the psychological impact of movies and specifically so in the case of children/young adults.

I have some issues with this recommendation. Firstly, it seems to me that a successful horror film should have a significant psychological impact – in many ways its job is to keep you up at night. Secondly, I am rather concerned that the BBFC are moving from a relatively objective classification criterion (level of gore) to an almost exclusively subjective one (the psychological impact). Inevitably, this gives the board more power in that in appoints them judge and jury in an area where interpretation is specific to the individual.

Furthermore, there is a risk that films with a strong psychological or supernatural element are raised from the 15 category to the 18 one. Given the revenue that comes from the 15-18 age group in the horror category, this could have potentially serious financial implications for the industry.

This post isn’t meant to get across the view that the BBFC are in danger of drifting back to the bad old days of James Ferman. That would be silly. But I genuinely think that the latest guidelines have not continued along the path of classification reform that that so aptly began with Ferman’s departure. And that should be concerning to any horror fan.

I’d like to end this post with the following quote from Stephen Murphy, head of the BBFC between 1971-75 (he was Ferman’s predecessor), in response to concern over the BBFC allowing The Exorcist a cinematic release (they later banned the video under Ferman):

“Throughout its history the cinema has shocked, horrified and distressed some people. This has always, until recently, been held to be a legitimate kind of cinema, provided children were excluded and provided adults knew to what they were exposing themselves.”

It’s hard to not concur completely with Murphy’s sentiment. It would be a shame if horror films walking the line of the supernatural and psychological were to be rewarded with stricter certification, just to appease the views of a minority who feel distressed by them. Such films offer a brilliant experience to older teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 who should not be excluded from enjoying the thrill of being terrified in a cinema.

But equally worrying is any change in the guidelines which gives more power to the select few individuals on the board who no matter how well-meaning cannot be relied upon to determine the psychological impact of horror cinema.