It’s finally October, and that of course means it’s the biggest Fantasmo month of the year! Not only do we have our regular Fantasmo coming up this Friday, October 5, at 8:00 p.m., but we also have Monster Fest and our all-night Horrorthon on Saturday, October 13 (more info to follow shortly). Before we dive into talking about Monster Fest, I have to say a bit about our Fantasmo this Friday. As mentioned earlier on the blog, we are devoting the evening to Vincent Price, and featuring two of his most celebrated performances: Masque of the Red Death and Witchfinder General. While both are amazing films, Witchfinder General in particular is worthy of special attention . . .
Witchfinder General has somewhat of a troubled history, having suffered from a great deal of tampering over the years. The film was produced in Great Britain, and released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm. It was retitled as such to maintain a connection with earlier AIP Edgar Allan Poe releases starring Price (e.g. Masque of the Red Death). However, the only connection the film had was a tacked on Poe reading by Price at the beginning and end of the film (bearing no relationship to the proceedings). Furthermore, material deemed too violent was cut from the film for its American release, with new scenes (which were quite saucy) included against the director’s wishes. To add insult to injury, later video releases even replaced the wonderful score by Paul Ferris with cheesy synth music. Thankfully, the original director’s cut has now been released, and we’ll be showing the preferred cut at this Friday’s Fantasmo.
In a nutshell, Witchfinder General finds Price playing inquisitor Matthew Hopkins, who roams the English countryside responding to summons from various villages claiming troubles with witchcraft. Operating under the assumption of “guilty until proven innocent,” Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Robert Russell) subject the accused to torturous trials that ultimately end in death. Worse still, Hopkins doesn’t even believe the accusations himself, but merely uses his position as an excuse to obtain monetary rewards from local officials. When Hopkins takes advantage of one soldier’s intended while the fellow (From Beyond the Grave’s Ian Ogilvy) is away on the front, he earns an enemy who won’t relent until vengeance is achieved.
Essentially, Witchfinder is a revenge flick set in 17th century England. Substitute Ian Ogilvy for Charles Bronson, and Price and Russell as the rampaging gang, and you have the equivalent of Death Wish translated into a historical piece. Of course, Witchfinder also has an underlying message about the evils of religious persecution and the abuse of government authority mixed in there as well. Hopkins is a sanctioned agent of the state, using his position to develop wealth and power. He could care less about the legitimacy of his actions, as his ultimate goal is self-promotion. Hopkins’ rise is permitted by the government, as his methods keep the locals under control through fear of imagined threats (i.e. witchcraft, devil worship, etc.). The witchfinder is supposedly able to rid the towns of corruption, when in fact innocents are being tortured to death in the name of religion.
While you can find related commentary in other films on the topic of witch trials and the like, Witchfinder General has received special attention largely because of Price’s terrific turn as Hopkins. Largely known for his tongue-in-cheek performances, Price here is deadly serious and completely believable as the soulless inquisitor. There are no winks to the camera as Hopkins watches victims tortured, drowned, and burned, and no relief when he takes advantage of the helpless loved ones of the accused. This results in an intensity that doesn’t let up even with the final frame. Legend has it that director Michael Reeves treated Price coldly (originally wanting Donald Pleasence for the role), perhaps leading Price to be more serious in his delivery. Whatever the case, you will see an entirely different side of Price in this film, as he creates one of the great villains in horror film cinema.
Truly, this is a Fantasmo experience not-to-be missed, and a great way to kick off the fall season. Masque will screen at 8:00 p.m., and Witchfinder General will screen at 9:45 p.m. We know you needed two great films to wash away the taste of Smokey and the Bandit 2 & 3 . . . rest assured you will find these are just what the doctor ordered : )
Also, don’t forget to keep sending in your votes for our greatest hits show in November! You can also vote at Fantasmo this Friday night, which will be the closing date for all votes! Just remember, keep those votes for Gymkata and Mighty Peking Man coming!!! See you on Friday!