Witchfinder General (Reeves, 1968) and The Shout (Skolimowski, 1978)

Vincent Price has one of his strongest performances as the hypocritical, heretical self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder’ in Michael Reeves’ red-paint-gory period mood piece.

Though made in 1968, in the UK, and at the end of the Hollywood Production Code this is still a pretty surprisingly  graphic film.  It’s a different sort of blood and violence than in Bonnie and Clyde.  Here it’s coarse, loveless, and kind of disturbing in a way that anticipates the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man.

While Witchfinder General is largely the stuff of commonplace machismo revenge film, it’s also got a strong Scarlet Letter-type tone, particularly in scenes where Price’s Matthew Hopkins and henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell in a really great performance) sentence accused witches to doom in purely contradictory, deceptive terms (if she floats when we drown her then she was innocent after all).

Still, there are some hilarious moments in here, like this awesome ‘don’t bring a knife to a gun fight scene.’  The father of one of Hopkins’ victims accosts he, Stearne, their next victims on the stairs:

Picture 1 Picture 2 Picture 3 Picture 4 Picture 5

This all takes about 8 seconds.  It’s made all the more funny by the fact that a) the knife-wielder can clearly see Hopkins’ gun before he pulls the knife on him (see shots 1 and 2), and b) Reeves spends at least 4 or 5 shots previous to this setting up this encounter.  While the encounter does in the end lead to the denouement, it’s still unintentionally funny and could be easily avoided with some clever restaging or rewriting.

The Shout

I’ve been hoping to catch Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout for years and when I finally find it it’s not in a repertory theater, on Netflix, Mubi or Hulu.  No, it’s on Youtube.

The Shout is a superb film, basically a masterpiece that recalls the best of classics like Teorema and F for Fake alongside newer charlatan flicks like Kosmos and Sound of my Voice.  This is the type of film I would love to make.

Robert Graves (Tim Curry!) is enlisted to keep score at a cricket match a local mental asylum.  Keeping score next to him is Crossley (Alan Bates) who offers to tell Graves a tale.  Graves is game, so Crossley embarks on a story of his own encounter with married couple Rachel and Anthony Fielding (Susannah York and John Hurt…what a cast).  Crossley insinuates himself into their life, seducing Rachel, and keeping Anthony at bay with tales (and an example) of “the shout” – an ear-splitting scream that will bring anyone nearby instant death.

The Shout is great for all of the reasons a great film should be: the performances are fantastic, the sound design is really detailed and quite present – Hurt’s Anthony is a sound designer of sorts, so there’s quite an emphasis on found sounds and analog manipulation of them, and the story, which is so enigmatic as to be incredibly compelling.  It’s hard not to think of Peter Weir’s The Last Wave when talking about The Shout in it’s combination of dangerous folklore and idyllic home life.

Skolimowski employs several ’70s-style quick flashback cuts, but for the most part his style is fluid and depends a lot on the interaction of Hurt and Bates, who play off of one-another wonderfully.

The mood of The Shout is of course enhanced by its monochrome, dramatic visuals-

Picture 6 Picture 7

That last image there – rather important to the film – is reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s 1949 painting Head VI


-and in fact, quite a bit of The Shout seems to be fashioned after Bacon’s work in all its grotesque ambiguity.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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2 Responses to Witchfinder General (Reeves, 1968) and The Shout (Skolimowski, 1978)

  1. Pingback: Top 15 Films of 2013 | dcpfilm

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