Devil’s Advocates is a series of books exploring individual films in detail and, as the name suggests, focuses specifically on the horror genre. The tome on Witchfinder General discusses a film that is now over forty years old but is still important and relevant in so many ways. Witchfinder General was the last film to be completed by Michael Reeves before his early death and engages on many levels, both cinematically and culturally, especially in the context of the real history of witchcraft as well as contemporary British cinema. In many ways Witchfinder General could be described as heritage cinema – it’s set in the past, features historical figures and a British countryside setting – but the resulting film could not be further from most audiences’ perception of the term. This is something that the book addresses in detail, commenting particularly on British cinema’s need for realism.
Witchfinder General was problematic even before shooting even started as the censor at that time, John Trevelyan, had a say in scripting and could indicate which areas were likely to be considered unacceptable. And much of Witchfinder General was considered to be unacceptable, indeed it was described as a ‘study in sadism’. The book explores these issues but also comments on how additional scenes of exploitation were later added back into the film. The contemporary criticisms of the film are fascinating, as is the way that attitudes have changed in the intervening years. Subsequent releases altered some of the scenes that had originally been trimmed for their brutality but remain shocking, especially given that, as a form of brutalised heritage cinema, the film was based – in part – on the life and extremities instigated by the very real and very horrible Matthew Hopkins.
Overall a welcome and informative examination into one of Britain’s more notorious horror films, this Devil’s Advocate explores the film in great detail, from inception to reception. Cooper examines the background, the life of its short-lived director and the production of the film (together with the often problematic relationships between the director and his star Vincent Price) as well as the studio behind the film. Most interesting is the discussion about its acceptability for contemporary British audiences and critical reactions – both at the time of release and subsequently. Witchfinder General remains one of the more interesting British films of the late Sixties and this Devil’s Advocate places the film in context, socially and critically, providing a fascinating read which highlights the film’s importance in cinema history.