All things come to him who waits. And it has been a long wait for WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) to reach U.S. shores in its original, unaltered form. This English production (the last by cult director Michael Reeves before his untimely death by drug overdose) is one of the most highly regarded films that the late, great horror star Vincent Price made toward the end of the ’60s, but for U.S. distribution it was altered and retitled (to THE CONQUEROR WORM) in order to make it seem like a resumption of Price’s series of Poe adaptations that had lain dormant since THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). Later home video release, on VHS, only added further indignities in the form of a new synthesizer score, replacing the original orchestral music, and gratuitous nudity (which had been filmed by executive producer Tony Tenser, over the director’s wishes, for the German market). A British Region 2 DVD release included the censored U.K. version of WITCHFINDER GENERAL plus the slightly longer “export” version (with gruesome footage restored via grainy inserts). Over two years ago, at a screening of an English print of the film in Hollywood, producer Philip Waddilove promised that MGM had a fully restored version of WITCHFINDER GENERAL fully prepped for a U.S. DVD release within a few months, but then MGM was sold to Sony, who put the plans on hold. Now, at long last, the DVD is scheduled to hit store shelves on Tuesday, September 11.
Read on below the fold for comments by Philip Waddilove and actor Ian Ogilvy on the making of the film and on the DVD restoration.
As part of the American Cinematheque’s tribute to Vincent Price in March of 2005, WITCHFINDER GENERAL was screened at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The screening – of a new 35mm print, with the original title intact – was meant to act as a sort of preview for the DVD release, which was planned for August 2005.
In the decades since its release in 1968, WITCHFINDER GENERAL has earned a reputation as a mini-masterpiece of historical horror, but during its initial theatrical release in America, it was treated rather badly by its distributor, American International Pictures. The film was re-titled (after a poem by Edgar Allan Poe) and put on the bottom half of a double bill with FROGS (a cheap attempt at a ripoff of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS). Consequently, it was a special treat to see the British cut of the film.
The event featured appearances by co-star Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove, who discussed the making of the film and gave a few details about the DVD, which will feature a fully restored “director’s cut,” along with supplemental sections of deleted scenes that the director did not want in the film (e.g., the aforementioned nudity). Before the film, Waddilove made a short introduction, which included these words:
“Over the year’s the film has become a major cult classic. Last year, WITCHFINDER’s new distributor in the States, MGM-United Artists, fully restored the movie, reverting to the original title with its original opening and closing scenes and, very importantly, its original music. On behalf of all those involved in making WITCHFINDER GENERAL, living and dead, I thank MGM-UA profusely for the wonderful work they’ve done on our movie. We look forward to August of this year, when they release it for the first time in the United States on DVD. So in tandem with the screening at the Aero Theatre, this will be the very first public screening ever of the movie in the United States under its original, correct title.”
The screening that followed was a delight (if that’s the right word to use about a grim portrait of torture and sadism, with Price as the title character, a self-promoting hypocrite who profits from the witch hysteria by going from town to town, extracting confessions from innocent victims). The print was so beautiful it felt almost like seeing the movie when it originally opened back in 1968.
It was not a total delight, however. WITCHFINDER GENERAL exists in several versions, and the British one, although featuring the correct title, is not complete: the film was cut by the British censors during its initial release, so watching the film at the Egyptian Theatre was a bit like watching the film on broadcast television, with some of the bloodier moments trimmed. The upcoming DVD is supposed to be a complete restoration, sort of a composite of the uncensored American version with the British title, the original music, and no narration (the American print had Price quoting lines from Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” over the opening and closing credits, in order to justify the use of the title for the film).
After the screening, Ogilvy and Waddilove answered questions and told several amusing behind-the-scenes stories about its making. Much of the commentary delt with the friction between Price and Reeves, who had wanted Donald Pleasence to play Hopkins. Reeves had felt that Price, by this time in his career, had turned into a walking self-parody who was no longer suitable for serious horror, and Price resented being held in such low regard by a neophyte director more than two decades his junior.
Near the end of the session, one member of the audience asked both Ogilvy and Waddilove how they felt about seeing the film again, more than three decades after making it. Interestingly, both men seemed pleased to be involved with something that had gained a cult following, yet at the same time they were not quite comfortable with fully endorsing the film’s reputation.
Said Waddilove: “I don’t know what a masterpiece is, but I don’t put [WITCHFINDER] in the same category as THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and a few others. I mean, it’s very flattering for people to say that. I think it was a wonderfully made movie, when you bear in mind that it was made with so little money.”
Ogilvy seconded the opinion: “I’ve been to a lot of these things over the years. As I say, it was thirty-seven years ago. It started getting attention drawn to itself very early on. So, I’ve seen this movie far too many times. There are places where I have to sit on the floor and shut my eyes; I just can’t watch. I think it’s overrated, to be very honest with you. I think it is a good movie of its genre; I think it’s quite special in certain areas. But I think the mystique surrounding it is partly because the director died when he was twenty-five. If you want to be a legend, don’t stay alive; die young, like James Dean. I do think Mike [Reeves] would have gone on to make great movies. I think the remarkable achievement that Mike had was to make three movies for an extraordinarily small amount of money. He had a very good eye, and the use of tracking in the move [was good]. You must remember this was years before Steadicams were invented, so every move, you had to put the camera on a rail, which took forever. The speed with which he shot, the way he could improvise, was remarkable. But I think we can oversell movies like this a little bit. I mean, I can see why it’s a cult movie, but I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece.”
When pressed, Ogilvy allowed that the film could be considered a masterpiece of the horror genre. It was nice of both men provide a little perspective on the film’s reputation, because (like many flms that have been embraced by a cult following) it is easy for fans to exaggerate WITCHFINDER’S brilliance to the unitiated, who may then feel disappointed when they finally see the film for themselves.
On the other hand, however, we should not fall into the trap of using Hollywood films like CITIZEN KANE and TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE as the only gold standard of film quality. WITCHFINDER, with its often wanton brutality, may not be as sophisticated as some acknowledge classics, but horror is a genre of transgression, a genre that goes beyond the bounds of what ordinary films are willing to portray. That shocking quality may turn off those with squeamish tastes, but that doesn’t make the films any less artistically valid. WITCHFINDER is a flawed film but a brilliant one nevertheless, and one need make no apology for ranking is as a mini-masterpiece of its kind.