Sunday, October 23, 2011

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Michael Reeves, 1968, UK)

Two men swear blood oaths to a violent god, seeking deific approval for their murderous acts, intentions tainted by toxic orthodoxy. Michael Reeves' anachronistic tale of witch trials and revenge is a slow burn towards soul consuming conflagration where enlightenment is reduced to ashes and dust.

Two wars rage in England: a Civil War to depose the divine right of Kings, and a religious war that elects murderers and charlatans as Messianic authority. Each preys upon the common man, trapped between biblical verse and Rule of Law sanctioned by the conqueror. Matthew Hopkins, a fine understated performance by Vincent Price, is the harbinger of a dreadful faith where an ethereal god writes human law into coded text. He walks the English countryside, a specter of Death, punishing those accused of witchcraft by scared and jealous magistrates. Blood money courses through his course veins, a grim reaper who extracts lies by torture and names it Truth: he's not saving souls...he's damning his. He rapes a young woman and torture her uncle and must face the Earthly judgment of cold steel and gunpowder. Hopkins is cruel and egocentric, but it's his assistant John Stearne who revels in sadistic pleasure.

Michael Reeves allows the story time to unfold dramatically instead of rushing from one exploitive scene to the next. He places the tale firmly in a historical context, even frames a scene between the protagonist Richard Marshall and the legendary Oliver Cromwell. Though his narrative short-cut redacts the trials of those accused of witchcraft, the point is directly made that petty squabbles and arguments lead from finger pointing to neck stretching verdicts, and the townsfolk who cheer have each escaped their fate, for now. The methods of extracting a confession are steeped in historicity; from stabbing into birthmarks, throwing weakened victims into rivers, and burning at the stake, Reeves shows the brutality in deep red.

Hopkins finally eats his just desserts but here, on the cusp of the Age of Enlightenment, even the victors become victims to despicable violence, where Law is twisted not to serve mankind but powerful men, those touched by the wicked spell of Christianity are left to shout their pain to the heart of an uncaring world.

Final Grade: (B)