... or maybe the best horror western ever. What you make of this will depend on two things. How much you like old British horror and how much you know about the production of this particular film. When you realize that this is the last production of a young talented Director, Michael Reeves, who died (25 - accidental overdose) on the path to being one of the all time greatest film directors, and that this is his third, last and best film, you will under its value (as an example of his talent watch the shot in this film of young children cooking potatoes in the ashes of a 'witch' that has just been burned). It is a notch above your average late 1960s early 1970s horror films. In fact it is a notch above nearly every British film making it one of the British modern classics.
The story is based on the real life times and crimes of the lawyer and Witchfinder General - Mathew Hopkins, who set about destroying alleged witches across England with the full power of the law. This film depicts the various acts of torture and trials conducted on witches making it an extremely important historical document (as a note the Western influence comes from the gallant long countryside horseback riding shots, mobs in the villages and things like gallows being erected in the same vein as the cowboy movies in the USA of that era. It WORKS extremely well!) It is also certainly the best rendition of such grim persecutions to date on the screen (US viewers should think Salem Witch Trials x 100).
There is an interesting plot involving a young soldier whose fiancée's father - a priest, is put on trial for witchcraft while the soldier is away. When the soldier returns he vows to track down Hopkins for the crimes he has committed against his wife and father and so the movie is essentially a story of revenge as this soldier chases Hopkins across the countryside passing through villages where Hopkins has been.
Some find this film hard to watch because of this subplot but stick with it because after the first twenty minutes or so the film really takes off. This is also Vincent Price in his best role ever and some would say his best work although the production values are somewhat low (a very restrictive budget with a young director practically making it by himself). Many of the scenes are underexposed, dirty, bad cuts, lots of zooms (a no-no in cinematography these days), daft credits that almost underexpose Hopkins face in the background and other elements of film making associated with tight finances. However ALL of the fight sequences and torture sequences are very well done. In fact some of those scenes had to be cut!
The real gem in this movie though is to know how much it has been through. The director set out to make one of the most violent films ever conceived in the UK. The UK censors immediately cut it to ribbons saying that it would shock the viewers too much. Also the US censors agreed that the violence should be toned down considerably but agreed that the US version could contain different takes with nude women. This led to several versions of the film over the years.
This review refers to the superb DVD version of the film. You can only currently get it on PAL but it contains 2 versions of the films, excellent bonus materials including documentaries, Empire Magazine's Kim Newman provides excellent production notes (best seen on any DVD to date), trailers and biographies. It is dirt cheap. Get it!
Anyway the DVD has 2 versions - The Directors Cut (featuring NO nude women and all the restored cuts) and the Export Version (featuring nude women and all the restored cuts). The VHS version is CUT. However this decade one scene was restored that was originally omitted from the screen version - of the infamous boot in the eye sequence. So all new VHS versions of the film have this restored... but the DVD has also restored - (1) A priest being tortured, (2) A women being slapped, (3)An extended version of the river dunking, (4)A witch missing her eye being tied up and burnt alive, (5)A woman being tortured and (6) the notorious axing sequence. Unfortunately these cut scenes had to be restored from a poor quality tape recording in the Director's own personal collection, so these cut scenes look very different from the quality of the actual film - however this is only a minor point given that the film is over 30 years old and was made on a shoe-string budget. The fact that we get to see these cuts at all on a DVD in SUBLIME for fans!
So for the first time ever - The Fully Restored - Witchfinder General as it was meant to be seen is now available!