*Please Note: There are spoilers for the films talked about in this piece, Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man*
The recent news that classic British horror film, Witchfinder General, sometimes referred to more fully as Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General, is to be remade has got me thinking about the classics of British horror film and three in particular.
As I’ve bored many people over the years with saying the my all time favourite horror film is Hammer’s 1958 film, Dracula. It is. It has, in my opinion, the best Van Helsing (played superbly by Peter Cushing) battling the best Dracula (Christopher Lee). It’s, for me at any rate, Hammer’s masterpiece.
And yet, it’s not one of the three I’m talking about here.
The three I’m referring to here are Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Although made by different companies, each of them actually has hallmarks that make them similar. I don’t know if I’m the only person who links the three as a ‘Unholy Trinity’ but I do feel it’s a worthy title.
At first glance you may ask, of course, why? What makes them a ‘trinity’ of sorts? Two are set in the 17th century, Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw, whereas one is set in (then) present day. You could argue that two of them, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man don’t actually have an supernatural elements at all.
Witchfinder General follows Matthew Hopkins as he travels round England, torturing those who are claimed to be, putting to death, those he deems are. Of course, it’s also true he abuses his power too. As an aside there is a superb novel by Beth Underdown, The Witchfinder’s Sister, where Hopkins is a key figure, that also shows how twisted he could be. Highly recommended.
Blood On Satan’s Claw deals with the uncovering of the remains of a beast of some kind, which then begins to affect those in the small community, particularly the children as violence erupts.
The Wicker Man is often regarded as the greatest British horror film ever made. The story of a policeman who arrives on a small island to investigate a report of a missing girl. During the investigation, the policeman begins suspect something far worse is going on. The story itself is influenced by the novel, Ritual by David Pinner, whose structure forms the basis of the script, written by Anthony Shaffer
As I said, on the face of it, they are completely different. But if you dig deeper, there are some interesting similarities. All three are essentially good against an evil of some kind, but you can say that about any horror film for the most part. But what they have also, is a sense of community being influenced by evil to a degree, but also how religion plays into each story.
In Witchfinder General, Hopkins (brilliantly played by Vincent Price), uses and abuses his position to gain power as those in the towns and villages accuse people, usually women, of witchcraft. Not even the local Priest is immune to the charge. In Blood on Satan’s Claw, there too the Reverend is accused of abusing a girl in the community, Angel (creepily played by Linda Hayden) who is the one leading the children who are acting strangely. The magistrate believes the girl over the Reverend and as a consequence he is punished. In The Wicker Man, police Sergeant Howie ( a superb Edward Woodward) is very religious. He is infuriated at how the islanders, lead by Lord Summerisle (in possibly Christopher Lee’s best performance), don’t follow the word of God, but are in fact Pagans. Howie, who resists all temptations put in his path, eventually finds out, he has been lured there for a different reason, to be sacrificed as an offering in the hope the crops on the island, which failed, will be restored for the following year.
In all three films, religious characters have a part to play in each one and in all three cases, it doesn’t end well for them. The Priest is branded a witch and sentenced to death, the Reverend punished following Angel’s accusations and Howie, devout and religious throughout, sticking to his belief in God, is burned to death in the Wicker Man.
Being religious in a horror film never seems to go well!
Up until now, I’ve gone into some of the themes that connect the films to varying degrees. Yet so far I’ve not gone into why I consider them an ‘Unholy Trinity.’
I think the reason why I link the three films together, is that all three taught me different, but also important film lessons, not just in the horror genre.
Blood On Satan’s Claw showed that children could be truly evil, even to other children (the savage murder of Kathy even know is uncomfortable to watch). The Wicker Man showed that with a powerful, charismatic leader, the islanders will willingly do whatever is needed keep their community going. As for Witchfinder General, if anything it shows how blind faith will allow someone with authority to do what they want without question and while the innocent might in the end prevail, they are forever damaged as a result.
I mentioned at the beginning how there is talk of a remake of Witchfinder General. It’s being developed by Nicolas Winding Refn, with John Hillcoat directing. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. I hope they learn lessons on how NOT to remake a film, from the disastrous remake of The Wicker Man. Blood On Satan’s Claw might have potential for a remake too, in the right hands, but was turned into an excellent Audible drama.
I mentioned how Hammer films, especially Dracula are among my favourites. But, while Dracula will forever be my favourite horror film, it doesn’t have the disturbing power of Witchfinder General or The Wicker Man or Blood On Satan’s Claw.
But then few horror films have that kind of power.