FILM OF THE WEEK: Witchfinder General
Saturday November 1, BBC Two, 12:05am
Devils, ghosts, vampires and zombies – all well established as the stuff of nightmares. 17th century English lawyer Matthew Hopkins…not so much. He should be though. Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of around 300 women he sentenced to death under the barmy charge of being a witch. In many ways, Hopkins was the Harold Shipman of his era, a serial killer motivated by profit – for every women he extracted a confession from (using instruments of torture such as the trusty ‘witch-pricker’), he was paid a handsome price by the local authorities.
While director Michael Reeves might play slightly fast and loose with the facts (as far as they can be known) of Hopkins’ mercifully short life, the sense of impending dread he creates as the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General utilizes wicked guile to take advantage of a breakdown in social order during the English civil war makes for an uncomfortably horrific watch. There is nothing supernatural at play here, just genre king Vincent Price as Hopkins, accompanied by the malignant presence of assistant John Stearne – two most mortal of monsters.
That this is a true-life tale of man’s inhumanity to man, fuelled by nothing more grubby than the pursuit of money, makes it infinitely more disturbing than all the devil dolls, possessed teenagers or found footage spooks that contemporary cinema can throw in our faces. Besides, substitute the hysteria over witches with today’s Ukip-inspired loathing of immigrants, and you can see how little England’s collective psyche has changed over the past four centuries.
SET THE RECORDER FOR:
Friday October 31, ITV 4, 11:20pm
Before werewolves got all touchy, feely and buff in the Twilight films, The Howling depicts them exactly as they should be: bitey, nasty and rough. Like John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London (also released in 1981), Joe Dante’s sharp-toothed slasher mixes dark humour with darker shocks, as Dee Wallace’s news anchor finds more than she bargained for at a secluded health resort. Look out for the work of special effects legend Rob Bottin, who would go on to traumatise audiences even more the following year with his visceral creations in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Friday October 31, Channel 5, 11:55pm
Co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg, who installed Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper in the director’s chair, Poltergeist was the Paranormal Activity of its day, taking back many times what it cost to make. Its twisted formula put the American nuclear family through the wringer, as their television – that most treasured of consumerist possessions – becomes a portal to hell. Horror of the highest order, it remains absolutely terrifying. All together now: “They’re here…”
The Devil’s Backbone
Saturday November 1, BBC Two, 1:30am
If you’re a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s majestic Pan’s Labyrinth, the Mexican director’s earlier film is compulsory viewing. Although not quite as ornately fantastical as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is a similarly tender and thoughtful evocation of the tragedy wrought by Spain’s civil war. Make no mistake, this is still an acutely chilling ghost story, but rather than superficial scares, del Toro uses the dead to create fables warning the living not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids