If you’re a regular reader (thank you!) you know that I’m currently under contract to write the Devil’s Advocates series volume on The Wicker Man. As an editor myself I’m aware that academic series, often unlike fictional series books, tend to vary quite a bit from one another. I want to try to get my submission close to the goal, however, so I’ve been reading volumes by other authors. You may also know that The Wicker Man is part of an “unholy trinity” of early British folk-horror, with the other films being Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Of the three my least favorite is Witchfinder General, so I’ve put off reading the particular volume on that film by Ian Cooper. That has nothing to say about the author, but rather a lot to say about the base film.
The book is quite good. Cooper is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and he points out some of the difficulties with it as well as what it does well. His treatment is quite insightful. The movie is violent and it’s an representation of the historical violence we thought we outgrew. Matthew Hopkins was an historical “witch hunter” who was, in reality a serial killer, mostly of women. Fearing witches, while getting paid to find them, he was responsible for over 200 deaths. As Cooper makes clear, the film lingers a bit too long on the abject nature of many of the tortures, not allowing us to look away. For this reason many critics found the film distasteful. I personally found it hard to watch. Education isn’t always easy.
There’s quite a bit of film history in the book. Cooper does a great job placing the movie in its cinematic context. Like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General is sometimes said not to be a horror film. Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural about it. Still, it fits the bill for many of those in-between movies that cross over into horror. In this case it’s due to the violence. For me, monsters are preferable to human monstrosity. They’re easier to walk away from. Although the witch hunts ended centuries ago, violence against women has remained. Whether it’s legislative or physical or economic, women deserve better treatment than they’re offered by the male establishment. Movies, and books about movies, like this one may be difficult to watch/read, but they carry important reminders that power continues to corrupt and it must be challenged and changed when it reverts to the mentality of Matthew Hopkins. His spiritual kin, unfortunately, continue to thrive.