The masterful direction of Michael Reeves has blended cracking adventure, achingly beautiful photography, inspired use of violence/horror, a genuinely moving love story and a memorable stirring score into, quite simply, one of the best British movies of all time.
Reeves coaxed a life-time best performance from veteran actor Vincent Price (I'll leave the viewer to discover the delightful anecdote about this in the accompanying documentary), as Matthew Hopkins. No Abominably Dr Phibes here! Price keeps the hamminess in check to deliver a genuinely chilling and convincing performance. His assistant, the utterly egotistical and brutal John Stearne, is superbly played by Robert Russell. Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer are also magnificent as the young lovers, who have the misfortune to cross the path of the Witchfinder. The tender beauty of their love scene generates a huge amount of empathy with the lovers and contrasts most markedly with the horrors to come.
Some elements of very black gallows humour - the kids roasting their potatoes in the post-execution fire, and a cheeky cameo from 'old man Steptoe', were truly inspired, but Reeves brutally realistic (some would argue pessimistic) view of humanity, leads us to the inevitable jaw-droppingly stark and bleak conclusion.
The DVD presentation is generally good, although the additional scenes from the export version are of noticeably poorer picture quality with apparently no attempt having been made to digitally restore them. This is a shame, as some of the interrogation scenes and the tavern scenes with John Stearne are genuinely compelling. The audio - Dolby mono, is adequately clear, but with the occasional soupcon of distortion. The extras include the theatrical trailer, production notes and, importantly, an excellent and revealing documentary about the tragically short life of the hugely talented Michael Reeves.
If you like a movie with a feel-good ending, then don't touch this DVD with a 16-foot Civil War pike, but if you enjoy very powerful, memorable and disturbing cinema, then the masterpiece that is Witchfinder General is an indispensable purchase.
**** UPDATE ****
Being one of my all-time favourite movies, I couldn't resist treating myself to the "Digitally Remastered Special Edition" Blu-Ray. Along with some 1970's prog-rock albums, Witchfinder General has now added itself to that exclusive list of products that muggins here has bought on three different media types. But was it worth it? We'll come to that in a minute or so. Let's run through the comparisons; first thing that strikes you is how vivid the colours are on the BD. The crimson parliamentarian uniforms look quite stunning against the forest backdrop, where every green leaf appears in sharp focus. The green velvet of Hopkins' jerkin looks far more impressive than the slightly muddier colours on the DVD. A degree of grain is evident in some scenes - particularly the landscape and evening (day for night) shots, but all close ups are remarkably sharp. Picture ratio is the slightly more natural 1:85:1, as opposed to the DVD's 16:9 (1.78:1). Slightly disappointingly, audio has not been remastered into any form of virtual surround, but remains as mono. They have removed the occasional distortion though, which slightly marred some dialogue and Paul Ferris' beautiful theme music on the DVD. The extras are almost identical to those on the DVD and include the Blood Beast documentary, trailer, extended scenes and interview with Vincent Price. The special feature that is "exclusive to Blu-Ray" is the audio commentary, which is worth one listen I suppose (thanks for pointing out that telegraph pole!). Disappointingly, whilst the extended scenes (more nudity and gore) have been cleaned up (in the picture quality sense you gather!) to something approaching HD here, they are only available as clips on the special features menu. On the DVD, I had the option to play the full extended cut of the movie. Curiously, the BD version claims to run for 87 minutes, whereas the standard director's cut on the DVD claims to run for 82 minutes. I am unclear as to what's gone into the extra 5 minutes. So, whilst the move up from DVD to Blu-Ray certainly isn't as dramatic as the move from VHS to DVD, is this version worth purchasing? Yes, of course it is! Go on; treat yourselves to the best looking version of one of the greatest British films of all time!