Wednesday, February 3, 2010

torture, genius, and the witchfinder general

On a glib day I might describe Michael Reeves as the Ian Curtis of horror films. Young, hip, his works deep-stained with a startling pessimism, dead (probably accidentally) by his own hand at a staggeringly young age, leaving the merest nubbin of what might have grown into a career of some genius, he is swathed after all these many post-mortem years in a gothic mantle of possible greatness, tragically unrealized.

He made three films: She-Beast with Barbara Steele, the Sorcerers with Boris Karloff, and the Witchfinder General with Vincent Price, which is considered his masterpiece.

She-Beast employs a tongue-in-cheek, very dark humor, prescient of Sam Raimi. A Carnaby Street hipster-couple is lifted out of their element and placed in danger in Transylvania, which has fallen behind the Iron Curtain but still harbors demons and vampire-hunters. Its playfulness is heavy like concrete: the couple speak self-consciously clever lines, there are over-the-top visual gags (the most famous inolving a hammer and sickle) and a really dreadful Richard-Lester-esque chase scene involving a soviet-bloc version of Keystone Kops, apparently stuck in as an afterthought because the film as it stood was too short. The Sorcerers I have not yet seen, and am currently scrambling across intercontinental Ebay trying to get a copy that doesn't cost a week's pay, but it sounds like She-Beast 's attempts at lightness have vanished and its hard edges of violence and cynicism have darkened and lugubrified into a truly disturbing, low-budget stew of Peeping Tom and Being John Malkovich.

By the time you reach Witchfinder, the darkness becomes impenetrable. The whole film has exactly one moment of humor, a short interchange between the Witchfinder's torturer and Wilfrid Brambell (appropriately enough, Paul's Grandfather from Lester's Hard Day's Night) in which they barter over horses. The rest is a sort of fable using the English countryside in a manner that David Lynch would use American suburbia in Blue Velvet, as a thin facade of apparent loveliness which flips at a touch to reveal a hell, like Sartre's, which is made of other people. God, if there is one, is content to remain a distant watcher of trees growing, birds singing, and men preying like ravening beasts, one upon another. In those rare instances when the heroes get a break, it is followed hard upon by some greater hardship or horror.

Cromwell's revolution has split England and unleashed a sort of chaos through the land which might be used to the advantage of an unscrupulous character like Matthew Hopkins (played by Vincent Price, although Reeves disliked him and fought for Donald Pleasance in the role), soi-disant Witchfinder General, hanger of women and torturer of men. The story begins with Richard (Ian Ogilvy, an actor Reeves used in all his films), a good and honorable soldier fighting on the side of the rebels. He loves Sara (Hilary Dwyer), who lives in a quiet village with her uncle, a papist. When the villagers call the Witchfinder down on the uncle, Sara finds herself in a sort of nightmare into which Richard can only join later on, rather than quelling it, despite his increasingly obsessive attempts to obtain vengeance.

Although the limitations of his budget are apparent, Reeves manages striking moments of innovation: a late-night supper at a long table at which the characters are lit by three intense pools of light succeeds both as a striking visual metaphor of helplessness in the face of impending darkness and a most convincing picture of a pre-gasworks manor house. There's an early scene in which Richard's company is attacked by Royalist snipers and he's left to guard the horses while the rest go hunting. In a conspicuously original take, Reeves stays with Richard as he waits, surrounded by forest sounds punctuated by occasional shouts and gunfire, until the sense of complete isolation and ignorance starts to breed panic, and we as audience long for him to do anything, take any action, rather than keep waiting passively.

There are even hints of a Terrence Malick-ian nature mysticism... just hints, and whereas with Malick one feels that God and Nature and Man are all one vast thing, Reeves leaves us with the uncomfortable sense that while Nature and God are enjoying a pleasant coexistence, fallen-from-the-garden Man is stuck in a hell of his own making, occupying the same space but a whole different dimension. It is most evident in the scene where Hopkins' brutish assistant (or "witch-pricker", played by Robert Russell) has been shot and is stranded alone in the forest, a slug in his shoulder and Cromwellian troops searching for him. We watch him drift in and out of consciousness, and Reeves lets the camera drift into the sleepy rays of sun filtering down through the trees to suggest a lazy passage of time (and, at the same time, a lazy indifference on the part of the universe toward his plight) as he takes his own instrument of torture to his shoulder to dig the metal out, his screams juxtaposed against the pastoral beauty around him.

Witchfinder is best remembered for its darkly horrific ending, truly revolutionary in those days of the Hammer formula (evil is sexy and potent, but good wins and order is restored, at least until Dracula rises again), in which although the bad guy is ultimately taken down with brutal violence, both hero and heroine are so decimated by the ordeals they've endured that they can hardly be said to exist anymore. This was the same year as Night of the Living Dead, it's true, but that masterpiece is cut from such wholly original cloth as to be a sort of mutant prodigy. Witchfinder, with its period costumes and its horror icon, lulls you into a Hammer-film mindset then pulls the rug out.

After Witchfinder, Reeves was attached to several projects that never got past the planning stages. He was set to re-team with Price on the Oblong Box, but it was a project that proved problematic to the point of severe depression for him, and when it eventually did hit the screen, directed by Gordon Hessler (Scream and Scream Again, Murders in the Rue Morgue), it met with a tepid reception. In his last days, he was greenlighted instead by Granada Films to put All the Little Animals onto the screen, a book which was a fad hit in turn-of-the-'70s Britain (it finally made it onto film in 1999 as a pre-American Psycho Christian Bale vehicle, emerging to wildly divergent reviews). This was a project of the heart for him, one which might have lifted him out of the constrictions of his low-budget horror-film corner while leaving his darkness intact. And it is that unflinchingly thick, black-blooded and multi-dimensional darkness which, to this day, gives his small oeuvre its startling sense of importance.

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