Witchfinder General (1967) – DVD Review

One of the nicest (if rather long delayed) gifts that American fans of classic horror received last year was this DVD release of the 1967 historical horror film starring Vincent Price as Mathew Hopkins, the titular “Witchfinder General.” The British production had been retitled “The Conqueror Worm” when released stateside by American International Pictures, with Vincent Price reading lines from a poem by Poe to make it sound like part of the company’s long-running series of films based on the author’s work. Thus the film remained for decades, until the home video era began in the 1980s. At that time, WITCHFINDER GENERAL was released on VHS tape, still under the title of THE CONQUEROR WORM, with an additional indignity: the original orchestral score by Paul Ferris had been replaced with sound-alike synthesizer music by Kendal Schmidt.

In 2005, producer Philip Waddilove announced that MGM was planning a DVD release that would restore the film to its original director’s cut, with the title and score intact, but this promise did not become a reality until late last year. Was the result worth the wait? Definitely. Was it everything it should have been? Not quite. Read on to find out why…

MGM’s Midnight Movies disc offers a very good transfer of a restored print, with bright color and a sharp image. The soundtrack is Mono, in English only, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Fans of the film should be happy to see that work has been done to improve deficiencies in the original. The unconvincing day-for-night footage has been darkened. It is still not completely convincing, but it is no longer a glaringly obvious flaw. 

Special features are limited to an audio commentary with actor Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove and a featurette, “Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves’ Horror Classic.”

The featurette includes interviews with Richard Squires, Stephen Jones, Kim Newman, and Christopher Wicking. It is as much a biography as a making-of documentary, focusing on director Michael Reeves, who died in his twenties from a drug overdose after completing WITCHFINDER (only this third film). The twenty-five minute video covers Reeves’s early life and career, including the films that lead up to WITCHFINDER, his masterpiece. The interview subjects are speaking from second hand knowledge about subjects such as the famous conflict between the young director and his established horror star; this oral history seems a little too pat (Reeves and Price are described as having fought before ultimately coming to respect each other – something hard to confirm since both are dead), but it does a good job of providing a thumbnail history of the film.

The audio commentary by Waddilove and Ogilvy repeats many stories they have told before (which you can read in our retrospective about the film). The pair joke that Louise M. Heyward, the American producer representing AIP’s interests, showed up on set only for the tavern topless footage shot for the Continental version, for which Heyward took a co-writing credit. Ogilvy mentions that Hilary Dwyer, who made her acting debut in WITCHFINDER, later quit acting to become a producer. He cannot remember any of her producer credits( e.g. 1995’s AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE), perhaps because they were under her real name Hilary Heath.

Fortunately, there are some new tidbits as well. Writer Steve Haberman, who joins Ogilvy and Waddilove on the commentary track, point out scenes that were censored in England. Ogilvy mentions that his on-screen horse, named Captain, was not trained for film work  – he liked to gallop and would not stop on cue.  The actor also reveals that he dislikes the ending, in which his character goes mad with grief when the object of his revenge is stolen from him: “This is my least favorite moment in the film,” he says. ”I cant stand it. I think it’s so fake. To me, it’s one of those moments where you go, ‘I don’t really buy that. I’m not sure that’s what he would have done at the time.””

Most interesting are the comments regarding the character of Matthew Hopkins. It is well known that a major source of friction between Reeves and Price was that the director had wanted Donald Pleasence in the lead role, believing he would deliver a more serious performance (Price had a tendency to play his horror characters tongue-in-cheek at this time).

What is not so often discussed is how the character would have been different. According to the audio commentary, Reeves’s conception of Hopkins was as a nervous, insecure man afraid he could not earn respect; he would have been almost a ridiculous figure – except that his position as Witchfinder General gave him a means of taking revenge on the world. As Ogilvy puts it, ”Donald would have put in a lot of … angst and neurosis. It would have been a very different film and a very different performance.”

With all this going for it, where does the disc fall short? Although it is satsifying, at long last, to have WITCHFINDER GENERAL in the form that Michael Reeves intended, the DVD should have included the alternate versions of the film or at least a bonus feature offering side-by-side comparisons of them. Basically, there have been four previous editions of WITCHFINDER: the censored British version; the “Continental” version with additional topless footage; the retitled American version; and the rescored American videotape (which included the topless Continental footage). Perhaps these alternate versions do not deserve to be preserved for any artistic reason, but they are part of the film’s history, and DVD is the perfect medium for this kind of thing. 

But for these omissions, the WITCHFINDER GENERAL DVD is a must-have for any fan of Vincent Price, ’60s British horror, or Michael Reeves.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

2 Responses to “ Witchfinder General (1967) – DVD Review ”

  1. [...] in terms of making great films available to their audience, were MGM’s Midnight Movies DVD release of WITCHFINDER GENERAL and the Fox Horror Classics box [...]

  2. [...] DVD Review: Witchfinder General  [...]

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