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By Emily Booth, Thursday 1st June 2017 One of the most brutal and corrupt periods in English history forms the backdrop to our network premiere this weekend as the true story of the infamous witch hunter Matthew Hopkins is laid bare. Made in 1968 by British company Tigon, Witchfinder General was directed by the up-and-coming 25-year-old Michael Reeves and stars the one and only Vincent Price in an incredibly chilling performance; one that the actor says is the finest of his career. But more on that later.
First, a bit of history for you... It's 1645, and civil war tears Britain apart as the Royalists battle the Roundheads for control. In these superstitious times, the bloodshed was not only on the battlefield, but in the Church too. Hundreds of people were killed - accused of witchcraft - a fear that pervaded the land in a grip of religious paranoia as the Church was determined to maintain control. One man, Matthew Hopkins, was appointed the task of hunting, torturing and executing supposed witches; a task he exploited and relished for his own financial as well as sexual gain. Officially at this time in Britain torture was illegal, but Hopkins invented his own demented methods of 'torture' (water ducking, the devil's mark, sleep deprivation, blackmail) to pluck out so called 'confessions' from desperate women. He was solely responsible for the deaths of roughly three hundred women over a two year period, although counting Europe as a whole, a staggering 40,000 - 60,000 people were executed accused of heresy.
The film version of events is surprisingly accurate, and at the time in 1968 caused a huge stir for its depictions of violence and torture. Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins is the epitome of sanctimonious intolerance, cruelty, and sleaze, but it was not an easy shoot for the actor.
There was a simmering atmosphere on set due to the clash between director and lead star. Whether this was Reeves's intention - to anger Price in order to extrapolate a genuine performance - is unclear... But it seems the director won the battle, encouraging a more restrained, cold and calculating performance from Price.
Michael Reeves was a promising talent, but due to depression and insomnia took an accidental overdose and died just one year after Witchfinder in 1969, aged just 26 while working on the new AIP movie The Oblong Box.
And it seems Matthew Hopkins is set to rear his ugly head once again with The Neon Demon director Nicolas Winding Refn announcing last year that he'd acquired the rights to remake this 1968 cult horror. While in Cannes he stated he wanted to do the film he described as "fascinating in its physical and emotional violence" justice. Though whether it will be set in 1645 like the original or completely updated is still on the cards. With the film supposedly going into production this year, there's no news on this yet. We'll just have to keep sniffing around this exciting new project!
A chance to catch this notorious horror, Witchfinder General is on Saturday 3rd June at 10.50pm with an introduction by myself.
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