THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL. (1968) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

WITCHFINDER GENERAL. (1968) BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY RONALD BASSETT. PRODUCTION COMPANIES: TIGON BRITISH FILM PRODUCTIONS AND AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL PICTURES. DIRECTED BY MICHAEL REEVES.

STARRING VINCENT PRICE, IAN OGILVY, ROBERT RUSSELL, RUPERT DAVIES, PATRICK WYMARK AND HILARY DWYER.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

This is a perfect film. A perfect film. Don’t try to argue with me on this one, haha. Alongside THE WICKER MAN (1973) and THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971), it’s probably the best British horror film of all time. I love watching it on BBC2 late on Halloween night or the night before or after. I love watching it anytime, to tell you the truth.

It makes every fibre of my being literally ache with longing for an era of superb British film-making that ended before I was born. THE WICKER MAN has the same effect on me, especially the bit where the giant head drops off into the sea while a blazing sunset paints the sky blood-red and the haunting music that accompanies the end credits gets into its stride. I’m getting shivers just thinking about it. Better move onto THE WITCHFINDER before I get too emotional.

There are so many things that make this film both memorable and, as I may have mentioned earlier, perfect. The tragic death by accidental overdose of its brilliant young director just a few months after the film’s release, for one thing. The accusations of tasteless violence and a disgusting level of sadism levelled towards the film upon its arrival into the public eye, for another.

Another reason for the film’s memorability is Vincent Price’s brilliant performance as Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder, possibly the legendary horror icon’s most evil and wonderfully-played character ever. He plays the Witchfinder with none of his usual flamboyant campiness, but instead with nuanced cruelty and sinister subtlety.

There’s also the admirable debut performance of the beautiful Hilary Dwyer as Sara Lowes, and, of course, the fact that Ian Ogilvy, surely the handsomest man in England in his day, is playing the romantic lead, and with as much swash ‘n’ buckle as you could ever reasonably hope for…

The year is 1645. The English Civil War (1642-1651), Roundheads or Parliamentarians on one side and Cavaliers or Royalists on the other, is currently tearing the country apart.

Matthew Hopkins is riding around East Anglia with his odious sidekick John Stearne in tow. What are they up to? In the words of indie band BLOC PARTY, the nasty pair are hunting for witches… See what I did there?

Anyway, with no real mandate from government, as far as I know, or at least not much of a one, they hang and burn so-called witches, both male and female, after first torturing them horribly in order to extract ‘confessions’ from the poor souls.

The scenes of torture and execution in the film are chillingly realistic, especially Hopkins’s ‘revolutionary’ ‘new’ method of burning ‘witches,’ which is just awful to watch. I meaning, burning someone is quite bad enough in the first place without doing it this way to boot. Being pricked with a knife all over your body in the hideously painful search for ‘the Devil’s mark’ is assuredly no picnic either.

You’d have to be a particular kind of sadist to enjoy doing what Hopkins and Stearne are doing. I think they just enjoy the power it gives them, being able to beat up defenceless old men and women and rape any choice females unlucky enough to fall into their grubby hands. At the heart of it, they’re probably cowards, as most bullies seem to be, and would probably snivel and beg cravenly for their own lives if the shoe were on the other foot.

Sara’s elderly uncle, John Lowes, the priest or vicar of the pretty, picturesque little Brandeston village in Suffolk, is one of Hopkins’s victims. So too is the gorgeous young Sara, as the evil Hopkins forces her to submit to sex with him on the off-chance that he might spare her uncle. The dirty rotten liar…!

Ian ‘Handsome’ Ogilvy is Sara’s Roundhead lover (well, Roundhead in the sense that he’s a soldier, anyway; I haven’t examined his particulars, more’s the pity…!), Richard Marshall, and he takes mighty umbrage at the rape of his buxom fiancée by both Hopkins and his repulsive lackey Stearne. He vows revenge against the foul pair. They’re surely in for it now, folks…

‘Handsome’ spends a lot of the film riding. I wasn’t actually referring to his swoonsome sex scene with the lovely Sara, but since you mention it…! No, I mean riding horses, all the livelong day in search of Hopkins and Stearne, past some of the most glorious autumnal scenery ever committed to celluloid. Does he catch up with the noxious pair and introduce ’em both to The Fist Of Justice and The Riding-Boot Of Retribution And Vengeance? Now, you know I can’t tell you that, you naughty lot…

I kind of feel about Richard Marshall, aside from his handsomeness, that it’s not really Sara’s being raped he’s angry about and sorry for, but rather that Hopkins and Stearne have dared to defile what is his, what he owns, what belongs to him.

Even when Sara is being tortured in the castle by the gruesome pair, Richard has the power to stop the torture by himself spouting a phoney confession. He doesn’t, though, because Sara’s pain means less to him than revenging himself violently on the vile Witchfinder and his equally vicious lackey. His male pride won’t allow him to submit to Hopkins and Stearne or beg them for mercy, even if Sara has to suffer all the more for it.

By the way, the excellent character actor Patrick Wymark has a cameo role in the film as Oliver Cromwell, who led the Parliamentarians against King Charles the First during the English Civil War.

Wymark has also had prominent roles in Amicus’s THE SKULL (1965), co-starring alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and that other benchmark in English folk horror which we mentioned earlier, THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971).

Anyway, roll on next Halloween, which will probably be the next time I get to watch this unmatchable British folk horror film on BBC2 late at night, which is surely the best way of all to view it. Luckily, I have it on DVD though, so I can at least watch it that way as often as I like.

So remember, don’t be alarmed if you hear blood-curdling screams and the sounds of unimaginable suffering and hell-on-earth issuing spookily from behind my closed doors this winter, folks. It’s only The Witchfinder…

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.

THE WICKER MAN. (1973) BRITAIN’S BEST HORROR FILM REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

wicker man chop

THE WICKER MAN. (1973) DISTRIBUTED BY BRITISH LION FILMS. SCREENPLAY BY ANTHONY SCHAFFER. INSPIRED BY DAVID PINNER’S 1967 NOVEL ‘RITUAL.’

PRODUCED BY PETER SNELL. DIRECTED BY ROBIN HARDY. MUSIC BY PAUL GIOVANNI. CINEMATOGRAPHY BY HARRY WAXMAN.

STARRING CHRISTOPHER LEE, BRITT EKLAND, INGRID PITT, DIANE CILENTO AND EDWARD WOODWARD.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

‘Welcome, Fool. You have come of your own free will to the appointed place. The game’s over.’

‘Oh Sergeant. You’ll just never understand the true nature of sacrifice.’

‘Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.’

‘Here comes the chopper to chop off your head…’

‘And now for our more dreadful sacrifice…’

‘We carry death out of the village!’

‘That’ll make you sleep, my pretty Sergeant.’

This is a superior cult horror film by anyone’s standards. It’s deemed by many to be the best British horror film ever made- I concur- and legendary actor Christopher Lee is said to consider his performance as Lord Summerisle in the cult movie to be his finest. I graciously concur once more.

Mark Kermode, esteemed and delicious film critic, loves this film. Ditto moi-même. If I sat here for a thousand years, I couldn’t think of anything derogatory to say about the film, so yes, my review will be nothing more than a great big love-in, lol. Read on if that’s your thing.

Flawless performances by a superior cast make for mesmerising viewing. Edward Woodward of CALLAN fame plays Sergeant Neil Howie, a straight-laced, upright Christian police officer who travels to the nearby Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing child called Rowan Morrison from an anonymous source.

To the tune of ‘Corn Rigs’ by Paul Giovanni, Howie flies in the police seaplane over the bit of sea separating the Scottish mainland from Summerisle. (The movie was filmed in Dumfries in Scotland.) The green and rocky land looks like it hasn’t been inhabited since the time of the Druids. You immediately get the sense that something special- and dreadful- is going to happen here.

The old lads who greet Howie at the harbour are just brilliant. I wonder if they were actors or locals, some of which might well have been. ‘Have you lost your bearings, sir?’

Howie passes the photo of Rowan Morrison around amongst them and they hem-and-haw and reach into inside pockets for spectacle cases and say they’ve never seen the ‘gerril’ before in their lives, before eventually admitting that they do have a May Morrison on the island. She ‘keeps the Post Office in the High Street.’ ‘That’s not May’s daughter, though…!’

The motherly May Morrison does indeed preside over the Post Office-cum-sweet shop, whose window is filled with chocolate March hares and curious-looking cakes baked to commemorate God-knows-what kind of strange celebrations.

May is adamant that the girl in the picture is not her daughter and her ‘real’ little daughter Myrtle says that Rowan is, in fact, a hare, who ‘has a lovely time. She runs and plays in the fields all day long.’

The people of Summerisle are a mighty strange bunch in general and immediately set about leading poor old Sergeant Howie on a merry dance/wild goose chase. He is fed any number of conflicting snippets of information about Rowan Morrison, the supposedly missing child, which frustrate him no end and eventually cause him to doubt the veracity of anything he is told by these weird, insular people.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Howie is bewildered and befuddled by the apparent lack of any morals or good Christian values on the heathen island of Summerisle. Men and women engage openly in a sexual free-for-all that mortifies and horrifies the virginal Sergeant.

Men and women copulate openly on the village green at night. In the Green Man pub, where Howie is billeted for the duration of his fateful two-night stay, the regulars sing bawdy songs like ‘The Landlord’s Daughter,’ which are simply peppered with outrageous sexual innuendo.

Virginal young men are sent to the bedroom of Willow McGregor, the actual landlord’s daughter, for sexual deflowering and initiation. Gently now, Johnny! No-one, not the villagers, not even Alder McGregor, her gnome-like little father, bats an eye at such flagrantly unabashed conduct.

You see, the islanders on Summerisle worship what they call ‘the old gods,’ the gods of the sun and the gods of the sea and the goddess of the fields, and they don’t attend any kind of church services, even supposing they had any working churches in which to hold them. Their churches are in ruins and their grounds allowed to run wild. ‘Minister?’ repeats the Old Grave-digger-Gardener incredulously, before lapsing into mad fits of laughter at Howie’s ignorance.

There is a deliciously pagan feel to the film that quite simply transports the viewer back a thousand years to more primitive, godless ancient times. Young women, under the supervision of Miss Rose the school-teacher, dance naked around open fires in the hopes of being made fertile. (‘They do love their divinity lessons…’)

Schoolchildren- Miss Rose again!- are taught to ‘venerate the penis’ because that is the source of all life. Makes sense, I suppose, but do they have to rub it in like that? The islanders are encouraged to ‘appease’ their gods with sacrifices in order to ensure a plentiful harvest of apples, the main source of industry and income on Summerisle.

Howie has a big spat with Miss Rose about the way the schoolchildren are taught such things. She succeeds in completely bamboozling him with her skilful double-talk and innuendo and the clever way she has of never fully answering any of his questions. He becomes quite frustrated with her, and she’s not the only islander to so flummox him.

The people in the pub, as well as the good folks down at the school, swear they’ve never seen hide nor hair of a person called Rowan Morrison. The Old Grave-digger-Gardener says that the piece of skin hanging over one of the graves is ‘the poor wee lass’s (Rowan’s) navel-string,’ and ‘where else would it be but hung on her own little tree?’ The doctor who filled out Rowan’s death certificate says she was ‘burnt to death, like my lunch will be if I stand here talking to you.’

So, does Rowan Morrison exist or does she not? Do the villagers know her or not? Did she die or did she not? Is she buried somewhere or is she not? Howie rightly feels like he’s going insane. Everywhere he turns, he finds conflicting information. Come to that, did last year’s crops fail or did they not? And what does that have to do with the missing girl?

Christopher Lee puts on a show-stopping performance as the devastatingly handsome and aristocratic Lord Summerisle, lord of all he surveys and unquestioned leader of his people.

He is perfectly supported by three beautiful blonde females in the shape of Diane Cilento as Miss Rose, Ingrid Pitt as the Librarian and Britt Ekland as Willow McGregor. Ask Britt what she thought of the weather in Dumfries during the shooting of the film, by the way. Go on, ask her!

Lord Summerisle, tall and wild-haired and obviously sexually charismatic, condones all the naked dancing-over-fires and sexual permissiveness on the island. ‘Have these children never heard of Jesus?’ a horrified Howie demands of him.

Howie is quite simply flabbergasted by all the ‘fake biology’ and ‘fake religion’ and the bizarre Celtic paganism he observes going on around him. He won’t get any joy from Lord Summerisle. Jesus? ‘Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.’ The strait-laced Howie nearly explodes with anger.

You’ll find out exactly what Lord Summerisle thinks of Howie’s devotion to the Christian religion in his monologue- ‘I think I could turn and live with animals’- outside Willow’s bedroom window while the snails are copulating.

This scene was butchered for the original theatrical release and Christopher Lee was rightly angry about this because the lazy, languorous, almost sensuous movement of the snails on the stalks exactly mirrors those of Willow and Ash Buchanan and is a metaphor for their off-camera coupling, which we hear but don’t see.

Lord Summerisle’s grandfather was the man who, in Victorian times, first grew the famous Summerisle apples on the island, availing himself of the handy soil conditions and the warm Gulf Stream to do so.

He was also the man who brought back ‘the old gods’ to the people, the gods of nature, and now Lord Summerisle carries on the tradition with all the gusto of his male ancestor. Nature is acting up, is she, getting all pissy? Chuck her a sacrifice. A chicken, a keg of ale, a human being, depending on the severity of the crisis.

Are you beginning to see where this is going? The horror mounts as the all-important Mayday celebrations approach and, by the time Sergeant Howie finally discovers exactly why he’s been summoned to Summerisle, the viewer is staring wide-eyed at the screen, appalled both at the poor man’s fate and at the knowledge that he’s not the first to which such things have happened and he may not even be the last.

The lead actors and actresses are wonderful, but the villagers are all so memorable too. The mighty Oak, who thrusts and dry-humps behind the petite blonde Willow during the pub rendition of ‘The Landlord’s Daughter.’

The harbour-master who from the outset proclaims himself as completely untrustworthy. The gentle, mild-mannered little Apothecary, who can’t remember if the ‘gerril’ in last year’s harvest festival was Rowan or not.

The hairdresser, whose blank but smug stare at Howie during his house-to-house search proclaims that she knows way more about Rowan Morrison than she’s letting on. Broome, the laird’s smirking manservant. The schoolteacher, who sings lewd songs about procreation to his pupils.

And, of course, we have the head-wrecking May Morrison herself, who might or might not be party to the terrible fate in store for her daughter, Rowan. If she’s even May’s daughter, that is. Howie still doesn’t know.

I can’t finish without mentioning Willow’s Dance, the one that’s designed to seduce the sexually uptight Howie, who’s still a virgin, if you please, despite the fact that he’s engaged to a nice wee girl from his church called Mary. ‘She’ll spend more time on her knees in church than on her back in bed…!’ That’s only the postman’s opinion, of course, lol. You don’t want to listen to him.

Howie is sorely tempted by Willow’s wild naked dancing. ‘How a maid can milk a bull, and every stroke a bucketful…’ He suffers agonies of temptation, in fact. Britt Ekland, whose Scandinavian accent was dubbed in the film, apparently only agreed to being topless in this iconic dance scene, but a body double was used for the lower body without her knowledge. To this day, she won’t sign photos of that other woman’s ‘big fat ass…!’

My favourite scenes? Howie in the deserted and decaying churchyard, fashioning a rough cross out of two sticks, watched by a breastfeeding young mother. Christopher Lee expertly playing a few bars of piano music while Miss Rose’s girls jump naked over the fire.

Howie doing his house-to-house search and ‘accidentally’ coming upon the truly beautiful Ingrid Pitt in her bath. Lord Summerisle prancing and cavorting down the road in his Cher wig and Laird-issue sneakers as if he were born to do it.

The swordsmen cavorting in the final, dreadful procession. Britt and Ingrid ‘anointing’ a shell-shocked Howie with their long hair. The first terrible sighting of You-Know-Who. The singing and swaying at the end. The huge structure collapsing into the sea while the blazing red sun goes down.

A word about the fabulous, fabulous music. Performed by the specially-formed folk-rock group Magnet, it’s seriously sexy and complements the action beautifully. I’m being totally serious when I say that I can never hear the opening strains of ‘Gently, Johnny’ without wanting to rip all my own clothes off and engage in the wildest, hottest, most primeval sexual activity imaginable with Christopher Lee. Ahem. Just watch the film. You’ll see what I mean…

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://twitter.com/SandraAuthor