The tone is set with the horrific execution of a woman accused of witchcraft. After being dragged screaming across a windy plain, she is hanged from a gibbet on a desolate hill, with a priest mouthing litanies beside her. At once, Reeves’s use of the landscape and firm hold on drama is apparent. This is a frightening sequence that underlines the terror of the times and the deeply ingrained evil of religious fanaticism.
The real victim of the film, however, is a soldier who fought bravely for Cromwell and now wishes to settle down with his wife. Hopkins accuses the wife and tortures her in front of him. Finally, breaking the chains that bind him, the soldier – played by Ian Ogilvy – takes violent revenge on his enemy.
If this sounds like your average horror movie, it takes no account of the tension Reeves creates throughout, how he coaxes sensitive performances from some less than wonderful actors, how he contrasts the evil of the times with the quiet, bare countryside and makes the period come alive with a few imaginative brushstrokes. Johnny Coquillon was the innovative cinematographer.
Reeves’s two other films were less notable, though promised much. La Sorella di Satana (1965; also called Revenge of the Blood Beast) was made very cheaply in Italy, where Reeves was given four days of the horror icon Barbara Steele’s time; it is still comparable to work by masters such as Mario Bava. The other was The Sorcerers (1967), made in England with Boris Karloff, which some think rivals the intelligence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Few people have seen either, though.
All three films were commercially orientated, but Witchfinder General transcends its genre with the sheer panache of its making.
Reeves was much more than simply promising, and deserves to be remembered.