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Witchfinder General (Folk Horror #1)

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Witchfinder General

Moviedrome, a BBC2 series originally hosted by Alex Cox, is where I saw many cult movies for the first time. Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General was one of these, screened in 1992 as half of what was dubbed the ‘Religious Madness Double Bill‘. John Huston’s Blood Wise being the accompanying film shown.

He may be keen to observe platitudes such as ‘The Lord’s work is a noble thing,’ but I’m not quite sure how much witchfinder Matthew Hopkins’ religious madness is to blame for the large numbers of witches and warlocks he dispatches here, as his love of money and sadism would also have to be considered major factors. This is a man who loves his job. He travels around East Anglia with his equally psychopathic sidekick John Stearne, investigating accusations of withcraft and sorcery.

Hopkins certainly has a high rate of success in proving these accusations true, but the odds are very much stacked in his favour. His methods of discovering the ‘truth’ include torturing the suspects during interrogations and if confessions fail to be extracted, then he can still prove their guilt.

As two women and a man are tied up and lowered from a bridge into a foul looking river, he explains with an inscrutable face that if they should sink, he will know they have been lying. And if they manage to swim or float, then guess what? Yep, that will prove their guilt ‘beyond a shadow of doubt in the sight of God,’ as Satan will have taken control of their bodies. They will then be withdrawn from the water and hanged by the neck until they are dead.

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It may not take a hotshot lawyer to see a flaw in this logic.

The movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett, a fictional account of real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who is said to have ordered the death of around 200 people in the space of just a few years in 17th century England.

What’s frightening here isn’t any jumpscare, spooky soundtrack, or vampires, demons, zombies, ghosts or monsters.

It’s the religious fervour whipped up by Hopkins in the towns and villages he visits, along with the attitude of locals, whose engrained belief in both Christianity and superstition, ensures they won’t intervene on behalf of the falsely accused. Many even gleefully encourage the hangings, drownings and burnings that Hopkins orders with an air consisting of equal measures of moral superiority and malevolence.

At one point, we’re shown the aftermath of a burning. A group of children roast some potatoes in the same flames that have so recently engulfed and taken the life of an innocent woman, and in scenes like these Reeves demonstrated his potential to become a top filmmaker.

Witchfinder General - Children Roasting Potatoes

Price turns in one of his finest ever performances here and ironically he was only given the starring role because small American independent AIP contributed enough to the film’s £83,000 budget to be able to dictate that an actor contracted to them was given top billing.

Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasance and on the set, the director and Price clashed, mainly because Reeves wanted Price to tone down the campy, often melodramatic style of acting favoured by AIP. The famous story here is that, during one fierce row, Price approached Reeves and boasted about the fact that he had acted in eighty-four films, before asking Reeves how many films he’d made.

The twenty-four year old answered: ‘Two good ones.’

I’m guessing he was gambling that Price had never actually seen The She Beast, a schlocky micro-budget Euro-horror with nothing much to recommend it.

The action, and there is plenty of that in Witchfinder General, is set against the backdrop of the English Civil War and been compared to a western revenge tale. You can see why, with horses galloping across the lowlands of Suffolk, almost as a substitute for the American Plains, the revenge drama element coming via a roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has several very strong reasons for wanting Hopkins dead.

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General

Perhaps significantly, cinematographer John Coquillon was later given several jobs by Sam Peckinpah, including his last western Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973).

Coincidentally, around the time of Witchfinder General‘s release, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was being heavily criticised for what many critics judged as excessive violence. Reeves’ film would experience similar problems in this regard.

In Britain, censors demanded a number of cuts in order for it to be granted even an X-certificate.

Nowadays, when massively popular TV series like Game of Thrones can include scenes that veer towards torture porn, this might sound strange but back then sex and violence were high on the lists of what moral majority types wanted banned in Britain. Reeves was forced to comply with the British Board of Film Classification.

The film found many fans but some significant enemies too. In the Sunday Times, Dilys Powell dismissed it as ‘peculiarly nauseating’, while Alan Bennett in The Listener called it ‘the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I’ve seen,’ before adding: ‘There are no laughs in Witchfinder General.’ Which is like complaining about the lack of gore in the Lady in the Van or The History Boys.

Witchfinder General - Burning the Witch

Since then its reputation has grown, although not everybody came round. Echoing earlier criticism, Ken Russell told Benjamin Halligan (author of a biography of Reeves) that ‘this is one of the worst films I have ever seen and certainly the most nauseous.’ Even Alex Cox, in his Moviedrome intro, damned it with some pretty faint praise, calling it ‘a fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poes films.’

The standing of Michael Reeves, who was dead within months of the film being premiered, has also grown. In recent years he’s been hailed as ‘the lost genius of British cinema’ and ‘lost visionary of British film’.

Re-titled The Conqueror Worm in America, Witchfinder General was made by Tigon British Productions, who were also behind Reeves’ previous film The Sorcerers and who would later put out Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) – which, together with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man (1973), has been referred to as the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of Folk Horror.

And more on that term in the months to come.

Maverick Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, The Neon Demon) had planned to direct a remake but it was announced last month that he would now act as a producer on the project, with John Hillcoat (Lawless) taking on directing duties instead.

‘I’m drawn to the dynamic departures behind this remake,’ Hillcoat told Empire. ‘The idea of a world pushed to extremes where fear preys upon all, unleashing religious fanaticism, rival factions, tribalism, heretics, and witch hunts… feels strangely familiar in today’s world.’

And yes, sadly, anti-witchcraft legislation still exists in a number of countries, albeit ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is only nation where practising it remains legally punishable by death. A grotesque state of affairs and one that shows no signs of ending. The kingdom set up a special ‘Anti-Witchcraft Unit’ in 2009. Since then hundreds of men and women (mostly foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia) have been convicted of ‘magical crimes’.

Just as the opportunistic Hopkins came up with the idea of implicating Marshall and his fiance in witchcraft purely as part of a personal grudge, it is suspected that many of the recent cases in Saudi are the result of the migrant workers complaining about issues like not being paid and their employers’ retaliating by accusing them of witchcraft.

The spirit of Matthew Hopkins lives on.

For more on Folk Horror, click here.

Ciao! Manhattan: American Indie #4

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Ciao Manhattan

Variety once summed Ciao! Manhattan up as ‘Monotonous and nearly incomprehensible.’ Some might argue that the reviewer could have omitted the word nearly. Despite its faults, it is still a fascinating watch for anybody interested in Andy Warhol and his Factory Superstars.

The film focusses on the lightning fast rise and fall of Edie Sedgwick. Mostly it’s about her fall.

Edie, it should be said, plays herself here, although to avoid potential lawsuits from Warhol, she is renamed Susan.

The story gets underway properly with Butch (Wesley Hayes), a Texan in his late teens, driving his beat-up Merc in the direction of Malibu, accompanied perhaps predictably by John Philip’s Malibu People.

Butch speaks with an Oh Shucks accent and comes across as almost childlike in his naivety. Seeing a youngish woman hitching by the roadside, he stops to pick her up. She’s wearing a beige leather jacket opened to leave her breasts fully exposed, and she sways and stumbles as she tries to get in. He’s wide eyed and she’s legless.

If you only know Edie from her gamine minx mid-’60s heyday, then you might not instantly recognise her here. The hair now is longer, the panda eyes and the XXL chandelier earrings a thing of the past. And those breasts are now bigger.

At times while watching this, I did wonder if the writer/directors John Palmer and David Weisman were exploiting Edie. But it on this front, it was Edie herself who insisted on appearing topless for chunks of Ciao! Manhattan. She was obviously pleased with her breast implants, although when asked about them by Butch, she claims the increase in their size was due to a better diet and exercise.

Edie Sedgwick drinking Smirnoff

Only Butch could believe such a claim. Edie finds it an almost impossible task to get on and take off her trousers, let alone exercise. She spends much of her time lying on a water bed glugging back straight Smirnoff from the bottle. She talks with a stilted and slurred diction and lives in a tent in a drained swimming pool in the grounds of her mother’s mansion. She had once been an exquisite fuck-up but now she is just plain fucked up beyond repair with permanent brain damage from drug and alcohol abuse. It really is painful to see such a sharp decline.

Hayes, who played Butch, later spoke about Edie’s behaviour during the shoot, how she was on Seconal and booze and sometimes thought she was in New York when they were in California.

Jane Fonda (whose husband of the time Roger Vadim plays a small role here) put in a fine performance in Klute, a contemporary and far more successful movie. But, as good an actress as she was, she could never have got close to portraying the pain that Edie was obviously in at this late stage of her life the way Edie can. It’s in her eyes. She can’t see any way out.

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Edie passes out immediately in the car but is conveniently wearing a dog tag with her address engraved on it. He takes her home, dragging her half-naked from his car and carrying her towards the front door of a mansion, much to the horror of her mother (Isabel Jewell). The mother, who is more interested in making pies than in her daughter, decides to give Butch a job anyway. His ambition is to build a flying saucer, and he is to teach her how to do so.

Yeah, I know.

Here, a dazed and very confused Edie talks about her dysfunctional past to Butch. This involves depression, addictions, the suicide of two of her brothers within the space of a year, hospitalisation, eating disorders, a strict father who she accuses of sexual abuse, and a series of abortions.

I once asked a friend of a friend who works in PR who her perfect client would be. ‘Edie Sedgwick,’ she replied in an instant. ‘You wouldn’t even need to invent anything.’ Along with the backstory, Edie had the famous partners like Bob Dylan and high-profile pals such as Andy Warhol. And she couldn’t resist a party.

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Most of Ciao! takes place with Edie living at her mother’s, while part of the film features salvaged black and white footage from her Manhattan days, which was to have been the original basis for the film. There was a gap of a few years between both.

‘It was pure zeitgeist. Coincidences were at the core, driving everything that happened. Nothing was effectively planned; we stumbled into all this as if it were waiting to happen. It was like a five-year-long series of cosmic collisions.’

David Weisman

Factory regular and one-time Sedgwick boyfriend Paul America was to have played a prominent role but he vanished during filming for over a year with no-one knowing his whereabouts. Jail was the answer to that one. Edie suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in rehab. Funding evaporated. It was not until 1970 that Edie resurfaced and filming could start again.

The contrast between 1970 Edie and the ‘Youthquaker’ and 1965’s ‘Girl of the Year’ Edie was extreme. Her underlying issues were obviously still there but if there was ever a time that she was happy it was when she teamed up with Warhol. Dining at Max’s Kansas City. Dancing at the Factory. Drugging it up wherever she went.

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Warhol was already an internationally successful Pop Artist when he’d first met Edie at a birthday party for Tennessee Williams. He’d also already embarked on a career as an underground filmmaker and he would go on to use Edie in around ten of his works. Since his days as a child, he’s been captivated by Hollywood and now he hoped Hollywood might become captivated by him.

This was always highly unlikely. His movies were inept in so many ways. His (non) direction of his (non) actors was far from Hollywood friendly, as was his static camera. He also refused to employ industry professionals for key jobs like sound and lighting, which is why these aspects are usually lousy. In Blue Movie he fucked up big time with his film stock, using film that was only supposed to be used for night shoots. This is the reason why that appropriately named movie acquired a blueish tint.

Warhol efforts like Blowjob and Beauty #2 (which starred Sedgwick) were about situations rather than storylines and structure. ‘Scripts bore me,’ he once observed and his early forays into filmmaking generally bore me.

Watch Vinyl, Warhol’s take on A Clockwork Orange, then watch Kubrick’s 1971 controversial classic and you’ll see where I’m coming from. Yes, Edie appears and doesn’t do much except look absolutely fucking fabulous but
for me to ever try watching Vinyl again in one sitting would require my eyes being clamped wide open with specula like Malcolm McDowell’s Alex when he is forced to endure his Ludovico aversion therapy.

Although usually of limited interest, Warhol’s movies did become influential and can be seen as early examples of gay cinema and precursors of ‘porno chic’. Blue Movie has even been hailed as the movie that ushered in the so-called ‘golden age of porn’.

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The Factory crowd habitues were a bit like Reality TV before Reality TV. Only some were actually creative and most of them were engaging on at least a couple of levels – unlike the famous for being famous wannabe bores that clog television nowadays. One of the better examples of Warhol’s oeuvre would be when he filmed Edie applying make-up, eating and even sleeping in 1965’s Poor Little Rich Girl.

Edie was incredible on camera – just the way she moved… The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.’

Andy Warhol

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Edie fitted into the whirlwind of the Factory scene perfectly. The word iconic is overused today but it describes Edie perfectly. The camera utterly adored her. She was impossibly cool. She possessed Audrey Hepburn charm, a Twiggy body, Jean Seberg hairstyle… and a Janis Joplin insatiable appetite for drugs.

At Warhol’s suggestion, Lou Reed wrote Femme Fatale about her and it’s widely believed that the subject matter of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman and Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat is also Edie. Decades later, bands like The Cult and Primal Scream were still being inspired by her.

I had an Edie Sedgwick type character in mind when I wrote Velocity Girl. I read Jean Stein’s biography about her and I wanted to meet a girl like that. Hanging out with Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and shooting speed whilst looking absolutely fabulous. Super hip and beautiful. She was the muse. I love her.’

Bobby Gillespie

While I’m on the subject of music, the Ciao! soundtrack is certainly curious. Around half of it features artists popular at the time like Richie Havens, Skip Battin and Kim Fowley, and the aforementioned John Philips but sadly no Velvet Underground. The other half consists of synthesizer soundscapes written and performed by Moog pioneer Gino Piserchio, who had appeared in Warhol’s Beauty #2 with Edie. This is undoubtedly innovative music but irritating too – it’s like entering an early video games arcade in the early 1980s.

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Andy Warhol and the fashion world both soon cast Edie aside. Any chance of a reconciliation between Andy and Edie disappeared after the former was shot by Valerie Solanis, an event that persuaded him to retreat from the wild and unpredictable druggies he had once surrounded himself with. The fashion mags discovered new young flesh, fresher now than Edie and far more reliable.

Edie died just weeks after filming on Ciao! Manhattan wrapped.

I would guess nobody was very surprised.

Ciao! Manhattan is a real mish-mash of a movie. Much of the dialogue in the California sequences is obviously written purely in order to link to flashbacks of the original NYC footage. The acting is sometimes abysmal and a subplot about a technology obsessed old man Mr. Verdecchio, who has a touch of William Burroughs about him, adds the square root of zilch to Ciao!

There are interior monologues galore but who is really interested in the thoughts of a whingeing petty pilferer who works for Edie’s mother or any of Verdecchio’s young employees?

When Edie is off screen, interest evaporates.

Like a much more recent film set in post-Manson murders, post-Altamont California, Inherent Vice, Ciao! Manhattan sometimes feels as if the movie itself is out of it on drugs.

It’s still better than watching any film that Andy actually directed.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

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I’m not sure how much of a Frank Sidebottom fan I could claim to be. I only ever attended a single Sidebottom show (at the Glasgow Comedy Festival in 2004 at the Vault) where I hooted with laughter, almost hysterically at times, and a few years ago I made an eedjit of myself in a cinema by hooting almost hysterically with laughter again, every time James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson character made sick anonymous phone calls using a Frank Sidebottom nasally Manc accent during Filth. In 1985, I even felt the urge to put a wee bet at very long odds on Frank topping the British Christmas singles chart.

In retrospect, this was not one of my better ideas, the British public much preferring festive tracks by Shakin’ Stevens, Aled Jones and even Black Lace’s version of The Hokey-Cokey. Oh Blimey it’s Christmas only managed to limp into the top 100 at #87. It then disappeared out of the chart.

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Director Steve Sullivan has undoubtedly put a great deal of time and effort into making Being Frank. Month after month was spent trawling through Chris’s vast personal archive which consisted of a cornucopia of home movies and TV appearances on mouldy VHS tapes, scraps of meticulously painted artwork, photos, notebooks, diaries, cardboard cut-outs, costumes, old cassette tapes and even a long out of date Jobseeker’s Allowance card.

Sullivan also spoke with an array of family, friends, fans, bandmates and managers including John Cooper Clarke, Mark Radcliffe, former wife Paula, his three children and brother Martin, who salvaged the material from a damp cellar, just days before it was about to be binned.

Many musicians, particularly in the twenty-first century, go through their careers without any real significant change in their music or appearance. Coldplay. Kasabian. The Killers et al. Nobody could accuse Chris Sievey of this.

Chris was always a bit different. As a child, he would invite school pals round to play Subbuteo and would make up tickets for the matches, as well as designing programmes and much else. A band then changed his life forever. The Bay City Rollers were not that band. The Beatles were and an obsession followed. He began writing baroque, melancholic tunes that could definitely be described as McCartneyesque.

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Together with his brother, he came across an ad in the Daily Express that alerted them to the fact that The Beatles, through Apple, were seeking new talent. Rather than just send in a tape of some songs, the pair hit on the plan of hitching down to London with two acoustic guitars, showcasing some songs live, and refusing to leave the Apple office until they had been signed.

This offer wasn’t forthcoming. Staff attempted to get rid of them, but they wouldn’t budge. Eventually they were allowed to perform and Apple helpfully offered some advice and even paid for them to come back to London a few days later to record some new demos. And they met Ringo Starr very briefly!

The first part of Being Frank shows an irrepressible young man, compulsively creative and with a clear eye for a publicity stunt.

He formed bands with Martin with names like Hard Sharks and Big Cheese, then got more serious and put together The Freshies.

In pop terms this act could be filed under ‘close but no cigar’. There must have been moments when a breakthrough looked assured, particularly with the 1980 release of his band’s single I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk, a slice of singalong powerpop with Skidsy guitars. Here it is and I guarantee you, your toes will tap.

I love those self-deprecating lyrics – where Chris lists many of the labels that rejected him, and I’m sure many music fans could relate to fancying somebody working in a record shop. Come to think of it, I seem to remember there was a very attractive female who worked at the Glasgow Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk in the late 1980s and I wouldn’t be surprised if some young customers didn’t at least develop a crush on her. In fact, I would have bet on that. If I wasn’t such an inept gambler.

The single also had a attention grabbing title. And this proved problematic. Due to the use of a trade name, I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk was denied radio airplay in Britain. But you can’t keep a good Freshie down and Chris spotted an easy way round this. He re-recorded part of his vocal, and the song became I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk.

Top of the Pops beckoned. On the week they were due to appear, BBC technicians came out on strike. Instead of a triumphant debut watched by around 12,000,000 viewers, that week’s show was cancelled and momentum lost.

The single failed to crack the top 30. Chris pushed on though, still devoting big chunks of his time to his music and art. While disregarding most practical requirements like paying bills.

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A year or so later, he decided to make and don a big round papier-mâché head with big round eyes and a slick hair parting. This was Frank, a fanatical Freshies fan, who stayed with his mum and liked cheese on toast. Before too long, the Frank idea took on a life of its own. Frank was joined by Little Frank, his own puppet and then Little Denise, Little Frank’s girlfriend.

Frank Sidebottom edged his way towards British indie music cultdom. What had started as something of a prank quickly overtook The Freshies in the popularity stakes, something Chris surely couldn’t have envisaged. He found his way onto TV shows, appeared on the same bill as Nirvana and Nick Cave at the Reading Festival, and introduced Bros to their adoring fans at Wembley.

I hope the money was good for that one as he had to endure 55,000 Bros fans booing him. Although that was possibly preferable to being cheered by them.

It looks like great fun being Frank, but during the final third or so of the documentary, I frankly began to get the feeling that I wouldn’t have fancied being Frank myself.

Maybe Chris’s take on Edvard Munch’s Scream was painted for a laugh. An absurdist take on one of the late nineteenth century’s most famous artworks, an iconic expressionist image that is thought to suggest the anxieties and suffering commonly endured by artists. Painted by a man in an oversize fibreglass – as it was made from by then – head, an idea that I do find amusing.

But when we hear of Chris developing a reliance on booze and cocaine and his problems with the taxman, it makes me wonder whether it might have reflected how he felt at the time. Maybe he resented the fact that he could never be as popular as alter-ego Frank. And now we’ll never know for sure.

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Chris Sievey sadly died in 2010. Who would have imagined that within a decade, his inspired creation would go on to inspire a feature film, 2014’s Frank, where the character based on Frank would be played by an A-List actor (Michael Fassbender), and then have his life (or maybe I should say lives) examined in a full length and insightful and often very moving documentary.

I certainly wouldn’t have bet on that.

For more on the film: http://www.beingfrankmovie.com/