Friday, November 27, 2009

'The Burial of Katharine Baker'
and 'Witchfinder General'

Some readers may be familiar with the 1968 ‘cult’ film ‘Witchfinder General’ (also released under the title ‘The Conqueror Worm’). The film was a historical drama set in 1645, during the English Civil War; amidst the chaos and violence of the combat between Cavaliers and Roundheads, a Protestant religious fanatic named Matthew Hopkins pursues ‘witches’ with the seeming approval of Parliament. As portayed by Vincent Price, Hopkins is a scheming hypocrite who readily promises to spare accused young women interrogation, and even execution, if they agree to sleep with him.

Despite its modest length (barely 90 minutes) and very low budget (at one point leading man Price purchased lunch for the hungry cast and crew) upon its release the film generated quite a bit of controversy in the UK for its depiction of torture, which was considered graphic by the standards of the time.

As well, the film was a powerful repudiation of the rather gilded picture of the English Civil War which had been promulgated in the popular culture. Far from being a quasi-romantic duel between the King and his dashing Cavaliers on one side, and Cromwell and his dour Roundheads on the other, the conflict in reality was a very brutal guerilla war with plenty of atrocities visited upon not only the combatants, but the civilian population of rural England.

The 7th issue of the Hellboy series ‘The Wild Hunt’ (October 2009) features a six-page comic written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie, with art by Patric Reynolds, titled  ‘The Burial of Katherine Baker’. This strip borrows heavily from the film ‘Witchfinder General’, even so far as depicting the ‘Harry Hood’ witchfinder character with a strong resemblance to Price’s Matthew Hopkins. However, while one might initially think the comic is yet another treatment of the ‘religious fanatic harming the innocents’ theme, it provides a neat twist that makes it a memorable little story.

(NOTE added December 1, 2009: excerpted pages of 'The Burial of Katharine Baker' removed following request by Ken Lizzi,  Dark Horse Comics)

Neither Mignola nor Allie provide attribution to ‘Witchfinder General’ in this installment of the story, but according to Ken Lizzie, "...attribution was given in the first appearance of his version of the character in the Hellboy comic 'Darkness Calls' ". 

I recommend looking for the film on DVD; the ‘Midnight Movies’ edition from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is the most complete and uncensored version available.

And, for a reasonably well-written, if somewhat reserved,  book on the English Civil War (although it says nothing about Hopkins) I recommend Christopher Hibbert's  'Cavaliers and Roundheads: The English Civil War 1642 - 1649' (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993).

1 comment:

Ken said...

We appreciate your positive remarks on "Hellboy." Please note that Mike Mignola did acknowledge the "Witch Finder" movie in the first appearance of his version of the character in "Darkness Calls." That said, you are posting the entire short story on your blog without permission from the copyright owner, Mike Mignola. We'd appreciate you taking it down. I can send a DMCA complaint to Blogger, but I prefer just asking nicely.


Ken Lizzi
General Counsel, Dark Horse Comics, Inc.