Witchfinder General

The second Compton Club event took place on March 12 2008 and was a viewing of 'Witchfinder General' (Michael Reeves, 1968), introduced by Matthew Sweet. It had been variously described in publicity for the film as:

  • The year's most violent film!
  • 'LEAVE THE CHILDREN AT HOME. If YOU are squeamish stay home with them!'
  • 'It is the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen' Alan Bennett, The Listener

Matthew Sweet is a presenter for Radio 3's Night Waves and the author of the book Shepperton Babylon, The Lost Worlds of British Cinema which can be purchased here. The screening was in part a tribute to the late Tony Tenser, one of the founders of the original Compton Cinema Club. As well as being important as a follow up to the showing of This Film is Not Yet Rated as an example of a film that was problematic in the 1960s, Witchfinder General was a product of Tigon Films which Tenser formed with Michael Klinger. For more details about Tony Tenser please see the Tenser Obituary.

A very enjoyable session, Darren Melton, one of the attendees, provided the following review:

' As part of the tribute to Tony Tenser (who ceased to exist on 05 December 2007) Matthew Sweet introduced Witchfinder General directed by Michael Reeves. Given the apparent relative lack of knowledge within the assembled masses about Tony Tenser or Michael Reeves, Dr Sweet performed with quite remarkable grace and humour responding to the questions posed with regard to the movie and the related sub-genres. Though to my disappointment no one mentioned or asked about Repulsion or how Brigit Bardot managed to be dubbed a sex kitten while Catherine Deneuve did not (no accounting for taste I guess!).'

His thesis essentially appeared to be that Tony Tenser was blatantly commercially driven and that the artistic considerations were always secondary which appears to be borne out by the Tony Tenser himself, I would rather be ashamed of a film that was making money than proud of a film that was losing it." Dr Sweet briefly skipped through some of the marketing exercises Tenser used to gain publicity for his movies (essentially sex & sleaze) and spoke of Michael Reeves untimely demise (overdose or murder? You decide).

The movie itself was what you would expect a 40 year old B movie to be; poor picture quality, not too great acting and the script not exactly on par with Chaucer or Dostoevsky. But having said that it did manage to impart an unremittingly bleak/oppressive air throughout the entire film that given the subject matter (Puritan Royalists, opportunist witchfinder, interrogation to extract confessions, & revenge) is perfectly suited. In the course of the story showing various torture/killing methods (fire, water, hanging and branding with crux ordinaria), rape, bribery and corruption.

While I suspect the gathered crowd were throwing metaphorical popcorn at the screen if you scratch below the surface it is actually one of the scariest horror movies made; it is just that you actually need to think about what is going on as opposed to it being in your face, as it were, and even making comments on human nature? Personally I find the implicit violence and horror are far more affecting than several litres of tomato ketchup at every given opportunity. Anyway, an enjoyable and informative experience all round.

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