Monday, September 10, 2007

WITCHFINDER GENERAL in Stores Tomorrow

Vincent Price as the corrupt puritan Matthew Hopkins in WITCHFINDER GENERAL, a.k.a. THE CONQUEROR WORM.


It's been a long time coming.

It was in May 1988, in the debut of "Video Watchdog" in the pages of GOREZONE #1, that I first reported the atrocities imposed upon Michael Reeves' cult classic THE CONQUEROR WORM (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL, 1968) by HBO Video's VHS release. It was the film's home video debut. In the nearly twenty years since, the film has never been available for viewing here in the States as Reeves intended it. Not only was the 17th century historical drama cut to soften the blow of its gore (and hence its outrage); worse still, its original Paul Ferris score, an enormous factor in its emotional sweep and impact, was replaced with an anachronistic synthesizer score by NEON MANIACS composer Kendall Schmidt. The film was the last ever made by the prodigious Reeves, who died of an accidental barbiturates overdose in 1969, at the age of 25 -- and it looked as though his best bid for remembrance was doomed by its current owner's refusal to pony up for the renewal of its music rights. In my two decades as a Video Watchdog, it remains in my view the most abominable offense ever perpetuated by a home video company, one that was instrumental in diminishing the reputation of a talented young man no longer among us to defend himself or his legacy.

Tomorrow, all this nonsense finally comes to an end with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's "Midnite Movies" release of a fully restored WITCHFINDER GENERAL. The score is back in place, sounding grand and giving this modestly-made picture a measure of majesty, and the film has also been restored to the extent of including some shots never before seen in American release. Here are two of them, featuring Maggie Kimberley as an accused witch being prepared for burning.


There are also other additional shots of gore, witch-pricking and torture that have heretofore only been available as part of a patchwork reconstruction of the movie issued on R2 DVD. The quality of Fox's reconstruction -- actually MGM's reconstruction, as it was done there under the aegis of James Owsley -- is seamless and the movie looks remarkably good, even to the extent of darkening some previously overbright day-for-night shots and brightening some shots that have always been impenetrably dark. I have only one quarrel with the transfer, which I'll illustrate with the following grab:

The reds are far too hot, and not only in these military uniforms. The blood is so luminously red, it looks fake -- it's always been overly bright, but distractingly so. So I recommend you buy the disc and mute your color somewhat before watching. Some of the deep royal blues in the film may look more indistinguishable from black as a result, but the film overall will play better.

The extras consist of a featurette ("WITCHFINDER GENERAL: Michael Reeves' Classic") with appearances by VW's own Kim Newman, Stephen Jones and Vincent Price exhibit curator Richard Squires. (I wish the producers could have invited Price biographer Lucy Chase Williams or one of Reeves' two biographers for some first-hand input; Mr. Squires seems a nice fellow, but I could tell where he read everything he has to say about the film, none of which -- this not being a text presentation -- is attributed.) There's also a very fine audio commentary by actor Ian Ogilvy and producer Phillip Waddilove (who, parents may wish to know, drops a few f-bombs while reminiscing about the once GP but now "Not Rated" feature), moderated by the articulate and respectful Steve Haberman. The extras can also be found on the WITCHFINDER disc included in Fox's new VINCENT PRICE - MGM SCREAM LEGENDS COLLECTION box set.

Alas, with this restoration comes some loss. This is the British director's cut version of the film, so it doesn't feature the opening and closing US narration by Vincent Price (reciting stanzas from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conqueror Worm"), nor does it feature the continental version's nude tavern wenches as seen in all previous home video releases of the film under its US release title, THE CONQUEROR WORM. The loss of the Kendall Schmidt score is nothing to cry about, of course, but these other omissions fall under the heading of necessary ephemera as far as we collectors and completists are concerned. They really should have been included here as extras.

In short, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a long overdue release of one of the milestone horror films of the 1960s -- a job well done, but one which also leaves room for improvement the next time around.

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