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Witchfinder General

(Directed by Michael Reeves)

This extraordinary film is also known as “The Conqueror Worm” in the US, to erroneously connect it with the previous Vincent Price-Roger Corman-Edgar Allan Poe collaborations. The movie was made for less than £100,000 and is based on a novel by Ronald Bassett. It weaves a wholly fictitious story of a Roundhead soldier’s obsessive and violent revenge against the real-life figure of Matthew Hopkins (Price), who manipulated the wholesale trials and executions of so-called “Witches” in 17th Century England.

Director Reeves famously clashed with Price, and had wanted Donald Pleasence for the title role before the American distributors pressurised him into casting the genre icon. For all its tribulations, the film is a fine period horror that dwells on human evils rather than supernatural ones. Sadly Reeves died of an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose in 1969 at the age of only 25, and this (his final film) is rightly remembered as his greatest achievement. Despite several censored and cut versions floating around, the footage still has an atypically raw and disturbing quality about it for its time, especially at the climactic scene where Ian Ogilvy takes vengeance on Hopkins with an axe. Its success (especially in European territories) arguably started a wave of “Folk Horror”, which would influence the likes of “Mark of the Devil” and “Blood on Satan’s Claw”. Well worth watching, if only for the excellent restrained performance from Price, which he acknowledged retrospectively as being his one of his finest on film.

The Devil Rides Out

(Directed by Terence Fisher)

Sometimes known as “The Devil’s Bride” (so it wasn’t labelled mistakenly as a Western!), this is a seminal Hammer Horror movie, and one that is generally regarded as showcasing the best of the UK genre scene at the time. It’s based on the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name, and adapted by the distinguished writer Richard Matheson. The story sees Nicholas, Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee in a rare heroic leading part) attempt to save an unwitting family from the attentions of a devil-worshipping cult, led by the sinister Mocata (a wonderfully oily Charles Gray).

This definitely represents Hammer at their best. Both director Fisher and star Lee are at the top of their game here, with the actor declaring this to be one of his all-time favourite films and roles. Whilst some of the FX sequences have dated (the unmasking of the Angel of Death as a cheap-looking skull), a lot of it still works superbly (the unnerving sight of a giant spider stalking towards a terrified girl) and it remains far more mature and succinct than most of their “monster” films. Hammer actually sat on the script for 4 years before filming, due to concerns over the subject matter. But they made such a good job of it that you wish they had adapted more Wheatley novels, instead of concentrating on their “sexy vampire” outings. As such they were ahead of their time slightly and pre-empted the impact that films like “The Exorcist” would have in later years. A solid satanic hit.