Witchfinder General; or This Really is What East Anglia is Like

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Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Witchy Wednesdays, where the brews are bubbling and the spells are casting! You join your reviewers, Andy and Lilly, as they argue about which one should be searched for the Devil’s mark first–joking, Andy’s a gentleman, it’s ladies first!

Today’s film offering: Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm)

Lilly: What’s a series of witch films without one that mentions Matthew Hopkins? Self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, he went around England during the civil war, taking his show of ‘Witch or No Witch?’ on the road. A slimy individual, he was responsible for the deaths of 300 women in the span of two years, and that’s…terrifying.

Andy: Yeah, he’s one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals in English history, up there with contemporary puritan bastard Oliver Cromwell. And they’re both from my neck of the woods. Lovely!

Lilly: And then they up and cast Vincent Price as him in the film! As if he needed help being creepy!

Witchfinder General is the tale of a young soldier and his lady love who happen to get tangled up in the mess that is Hopkins’ reign of terror across England. It involves all the tried and true methods of finding witches (save the old ‘compare their weight to a duck’ trick), from pricking to see if moles are the Devil’s mark to the whole drown-and-you-are-innocent, float-and-you-get-back-here-and-hang-you-witch trial and terror.

Andy: As for the movie, we slot it into a sub-genre of ‘pastoral horror’, along with critical darling The Wicker Man, and Hallowfest favourite Blood on Satan’s Claw. Seriously, I think it might be our favourite joint movie. The former brings a wonderful, cultish weirdness and the latter brings forth the kind of feelings in us that are usually in bad love songs, what does this one bring to the table?

Well, for starters it is one of the most relentlessly unpleasant and nasty films we’ve reviewed. Somehow managing to get a commercial release in 1968, it features torture, mostly of women, truly despicable villains, and a sinking sense that even the most optimistic ending after a certain point is always going to be pretty bleak. Anyone who saw Vincent Price in his earlier AIP films is in for a hell of a shock.

Lilly: Not to mention those of us who were introduced to Vincent via The Muppet Show!

We actually managed to watch a Director’s Cut of this film, featuring scenes cut out at the time the film was released in cinemas. It had the incredibly troubling and scary introductory text of:

At the time of its original release the BBFC decided that certain scenes should be trimmed to comply with rules on the depiction of violence. In these more enlightened times we have been able to reinstigate these scenes to recreate the original director’s cut.

It goes on to warn us that the quality of the cut scenes would vary from the kept, and so whenever the film went bad, it went bad. But how insane is that second sentence? ‘In these more enlightened times’? What, in these times where we can take seeing a woman with her face beat in, or her back pricked deeply with a needle? What! How is that enlightened! I think the word you’re looking for, weird opening title card, is ‘desensitized’.

Andy: Yeah, this is definitely one that we’re not exactly going to decry, but aren’t going to recommend, either.

Lilly: I mean. Some films you get through, you know? You make it to the end and feel relief. So, saying ‘go, watch, enjoy!’ seems like it would be almost sarcastic. You aren’t going to enjoy this film, per se. It’s nasty.

Andy: Even Hostel wasn’t this needlessly vindictive.

Lilly: No, seriously, see our reviews of Hostel & Hostel 2–they were messy, but not cruel. Especially due to the fact that they weren’t set in actual historical events. This one, however…Well, let it speak for itself. Go, watch, and….well. Try and sleep at night after?

Crimson Peak; or It’s Always Gloomy in England

Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Straight-Up Scary Saturday, where the scares are anything but subtle. You join your bloggers, Andy and Lilly, who would like to remind you that there is nothing normal about bleeding walls–if your walls bleed, call a plumber or priest immediately.

Today’s film offering: Crimson Peak

More like BABE peak, right?
More like BABE peak, right?

Lilly: Sigh. Tom Hiddleston.

Andy: Sigh. Guillermo Del Toro.

Lilly: Crimson Peak is the story of a young lady who wants to become a writer but is stuck being a secretary (she is a lady after all, ho ho ho) at her father’s building company. Stuck, that is, until a tall, dark, incredibly handsome stranger shows up and takes an interest in her…stories. Definitely not in her father’s money, no no no. It’s definitely in her stories. Definitely.

Tragedy soon follows the tall, dark stranger’s entrance into her life and it spurs her decision to move to England with her new brooding beau and his beautiful yet batshit sister. She arrives at his ancestral home, Allerdale Hall, and proceeds to become the queen of justifications as her life gets more and more insane.

This is a Gothic Tale.

Andy: No kidding.

It’s also a Guillermo Del Toro tale. A man who believes that horror is best viewed through the lens of an extremely dark fairytale, he is possibly one of the greatest people currently working in the genre. With a stable of director credits including Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and even such oddities as Cronos and Mimic, as well as producer credits on films like The Orphanage and Mama, his movies are characterised by beautiful imagery, insectile forms, scenes of decay and parental (especially paternal) abandonment or neglect.

Going to a new film directed by him is something I approach with something approaching awe. I’m a fan, essentially.

Lilly: As this is a film still in theatres, we hardly want to spoil, but there is a lot to like about this film. It is aesthetically fantastic, the sets absolutely stunning. The colour palette is dark and sensual

Andy: This film is nothing if not lovely to look at, which is what we’ve come to expect. The main set of the house is a fantastic model of decay and neglect, with a steady stream of leaves and later snow through the central hole in the roof. There are other touches – a grand library full of mouldering books no-one bothers to read. A creaky water system that sounds like the rumblings of a train. A slow seepage of the red earth up through the floorboards.

Lilly: Don’t forget, due to chimneys and poor carpentry, blah blah blah, the house breathes. Pro tip: if your new fella has a house that breathes? Just leave. Divorce. Shut it down.

Andy Yes. It gives off the distinct impression that not only has nobody lived there for a long time, nobody should live there. It’s the most interesting and developed character in the film.

Lilly: Meanwhile, I think the Baronet, played by Tom Hiddleston, is brilliant. He’s tortured, he’s dark, he’s secretive, and he’s sympathetic even with his twisted behaviour. I could literally use the word ‘gothic’ a million times to describe this film, and I want to use it again here to describe him. A man tied to a decaying family home and possessive older sister, I just want to play gothic bingo with his narrative. Handsome and charming? Check. Mysterious background? Check. Passionate towards the heroine? Check. Wants his wife to live in a giant castle of a house and never go in that one area of the house, ever, you hear me? Check!

Andy: Speaking of the older sister, she also gets an interesting build up. Played very capably by Jessica Chastain, she’s a woman who knows the power of not caring if she is liked or not. The young American bride her brother brings home is desperate to be liked, and this puts her in a position of weakness to someone so cold and distant. There’s a whiff of Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers here, probably one of the all time great gothic characters. There’s also more than an edge of The Fall of the House of Usher to the bizarre sibling relationship.

Lilly: Of course, we should probably talk a little bit about our lead, the charming Edith. She is able to see ghosts, something we learn at the very beginning of the film, and it has always been a rather spooky affliction. She is warned to ‘Beware of Crimson Peak’ (something we see on the film posters, so who needs to see ghosts?) by the same ghost several times, and sees visions of others who have been lost in tragic deaths. Yet, when she goes to her new home with the bleeding walls and deathly cold corridors, she is optimistic, which makes her one of the most Gothic-y things of all: the young woman who gets menaced in the name of curiousity and love. It’s really neat, truth be told, to see a character so honestly written–while modern horror audiences would see her as idiotic at times, she actually reads as someone from her time, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Andy: And, that’s sort of it for a character list. There’s our young heroine, her husband and her sister-in-law. There’s a young doctor who was the blushing bride’s other suitor, but even he’s a relatively minor character – everything else is on our three leads.

So far, we’ve praised the visuals and some of the characterisation, so it might seem like we really like this one.

However.

The trouble is that I naturally hold Guillermo Del Toro to a very high standard. His stories have been stunning visually and often narratively clever. The trouble is, here, he isn’t doing anything new. Not just for him, but for gothic tales generally.

There’s all the usual things we see in his films, and in some ways this one consolidates them, but they’ve been done before. The ghosts moving strangely? Mama. Moth motif? Mimic. One ghost in particular looks exactly like the ghost from The Devil’s Backbone. And as you can tell from some of the references we’ve made already, there’s a lot of drawing from the well of gothic literature. The trouble is, he then doesn’t do anything with the bucket.

Part of me wonders if it is just because I am too familiar with gothic literature, but for such a visually sumptuous film, the plot as it unfolds feels at turns tired, strained, worn and predictable. There are some nice touches, but for such an original director, I kind of expected more.

Lilly: I think a big problem with this film was how it was marketed, myself. I expected a lot more scares, a lot more terror, and what I got was a perfectly pleasant story. Well, not pleasant, but still, an enjoyable two hours spent. I think it was best said by Edith herself when she describes her story (clearly something that is supposed to be a mirror of what she experiences in life, ps, a sort of watery echo of Northanger Abbey, in my opinion) to a publisher: this is not a ghost story, this is a story with a ghost in it. However, the trailers really didn’t give any indication that that was going to be the case, so people might come out really disappointed. Fair enough. But I wasn’t.

Andy: Hmm. It’s a perfectly fine film, in its own way. Many, many other people will probably like this one more than me, and that’s a perfectly legitimate opinion. However, to me it’s like a decorated Easter Egg. Vibrant, colourful and gorgeous to look at – but inside is still a boiled egg. It’s edible, sure, but needs salt.

I did laugh, however, at the portrayal of my homeland as a vast, cold wasteland where “nothing grows that isn’t bitter”. Dead on, that.