Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Revisiting the Witchfinder

Man. I've got an 11-hour work day to slug through, and no entries finished. Already, a new haircut and a much-needed trip to the grocery store have been foregone for this Quixotic mission of mine (the Petri Dish, she is a harsh mistress). So this gets dashed out quickly--a mere appertif in the Horrorpalooza Fright Feast.

Once again, a DVD label--a huge one, MGM/UA--bends to the whims of Petri Dish Horrorpalooza (click here for proof!), this time by issuing the 1968 period shocker Witchfinder General on DVD. I haven't nabbed the disc, but I viewed the movie again last month (thank you, Turner Classic Movies) for the first time in a few years.

The good news: Vincent Price's performance in the title role still stands up today. I adore Price when he's in Grandly Epic Horror Star mode, but here he's at his most restrained and realistically scary, portraying a very cerebral man so contemptuous of his fellow human beings that he has no qualms about running roughshod over them, defiling their women, snuffing out any who speak out against him, and manipulating their ignorance to keep the vicious cycle in rotation. And Ian Ogilvy, the movie's hero by default, makes an affecting source of audience sympathies: His journey from upright decency to vengeance-stoked madness rings solidly true. Michael Reeves, the tragically short-lived director of Witchfinder General, propels the best moments of the movie with a righteous outrage that definitely draws from the anti-establishment sentiment of its time, and a lot of modern directors could learn a thing or two about the mud-caked ferocity and relentlessness of pace that Reeves brings to the table.

The bad news: It's not nearly as tightly-plotted as I remembered it, with some of the characters transparently doing Dumb Movie Character Things to keep the plot moving, and while more graphic films surfaced during the era, few were as unremittantly joyless and pulverizingly bleak as this one (my normally-stouthearted wife found it outright unpleasant). On a purely technical front, Paul Ferris's original orchestral music was replaced by a horrible, rinky-dink synthesizer score for legal reasons, and it's so absolutely awful that it fatally undercuts the movie at times .

Alas, the MGM/UA DVD reputedly includes the impostor score (at least that's what I thought I saw on the box), but it also sports commentary by Ogilvy and producer Phillip Waddilove, and featurettes. So rent--or buy--it for Price's brilliance, and for the commentary: Ogilvy was a great interview for Fangoria magazine a few years back, so he should be good for some fascinating anecdotes. Just don't expect the movie at the core of the disc to be anything resembling a feel-good flick.

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