The Greatest British Horror Film – Ever
Continuing with my tribute to Michael Reeves, this blog focuses on the film which defined his career –Witchfinder General (1968).
Based on Ronald Basset’s novel, Witchfinder General is a fictional account of the notorious real-life witch hunter Matthew Hopkin (1620-1647). Reeves adapted the screenplay with old friend Tom Baker and arranged financial backing with Tigon Films.
Tigon went into a co-production deal with American International Pictures who insisted that their contract star, Vincent Price, played Hopkins. But Reeves never wanted Price. His first choice, Boris Karloff, had just turned 80 and unable to cope with the physical demands. He then approached Donald Pleasence, only to be told afterwards that Price got the job.
Reeves did not like the decision and made his feelings known by refusing to meet Price on his arrival in London. Reeves wouldn’t socialise with him or extend any courtesy during filming. When the actor sustained injuries following a fall from his horse, Reeves sent his assistant director to the hospital to sort out insurance requirements.
Throughout the production the antagonistic Reeves did his best to goad Price into anger. Ever the professional, the actor took is all in his stride. One of the rumours surrounding their acrimonious relationship concerned the bisexual Price taking more than a passing interest in the handsome young directing and was hurt by Reeves’ rejection of him.
Reeves did however persuade Price to abandon his usual barnstorming theatrics and play Hopkins totally straight. The result is a truly frightening performance that ranks as one of his best.
Witchfinder General is considered one of the greatest British films ever made. It is a savage film with its graphic depiction of violence way ahead of its time. Despite several very disturbing scenes, it is unmistakably stylish, and Reeves directs with a real sense of brooding power.
Thanks to the high level of sadism, several cuts were made by British censor John Trevelyan, who was related to Reeves. The director was far from happy with Trevelyan’s decision but later conceded that he went over the top with the violence.
Witchfinder General became a massive success, and Reeves looked set for a promising career had fate not taken a tragic turn.