"Devil's Advocates: Witchfinder General" Book Review
Written by Ian Cooper
2012, 112 pages, Reference
Released on 29 September 2011
Michael Reeves' infamous, controversial Witchfinder General gets the Devil's Advocates treatment – a thorough, passionate and knowledgeable little book, admirably dedicated to its cause. As subject matter goes, he couldn't have picked much better than Witchfinder General – a very odd film, even by the standards of late sixties' horror. Writer and educator Ian Cooper certainly makes the most of these rich pickings, crafting one of the best books on film I've ever read.
Reeves' Witchfinder General is frequently named as one of the greatest horror movies of all time by those in the know, but is curiously very underrated at the same time. That's probably due to its unpleasant subject matter and unwillingness to compromise. It's an oddity, for sure – unlike anything British film or its star had ever done before. Cooper dissects the film and its influence with a keen eye, intelligently discussing all this and more. It's a slim paperback, but very dense with material. I like Witchfinder General as much as the next horror fanatic (without ever having read up on it too extensively) but the gaps in my knowledge have never been so evident than in reading Cooper's Devil's Advocates entry. Everything from the film's basis in reality through to its creation and reception are discussed, each in fascinating detail. Its scope goes all the way from the time of Matthew Hopkins himselfthrough to today, and its own relevance to the notorious 'torture porn' movement. Not only did I come away wanting to watch Witchfinder General again, but I also had the most curious urge to read the book upon which it is based, and maybe a history textbook or two while I'm at it.
This relatively small book is packed with information without ever reading as stiff or dry. Too many film books have a tendency to read like textbooks or study guides (a problem the Saw book occasionally suffers from) but not this one – admirable when the subject matter is all about witch trials and historical figures. If anything, the book reads like Horrible Histories for adults, which is never a bad thing. At its heart, the book is as much a celebration of Witchfinder General as it is a long-form essay on film. Cooper writes with clarity, wit and confidence, his obvious fondness for the film – and for movies in general – evident throughout. And as if that wasn't good enough, there's plenty of lovely pictures too, each depicting some horrifying moment or other from within the film. Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins glares angrily from the cover, suggesting it might be a more serious read than it actually is.
Devil's Advocates: Witchfinder General is like reading a really, really good review (not one of mine then) – the sort that makes you question old opinions or feel like forming some completely new ones. The film's more vocal detractors may not be swayed, but everyone else should enjoy it. Myself, I enjoyed it so much that I read the book in one sitting, then returned to scour it for any details I might have missed. If you've never seen Witchfinder General, I would recommend doing so immediately. Then, following that – read this book.
I have been meaning to re-watch Witchfinder General for some time now. This book has only compounded that. It's bewitching. (Sorry)