Paul Ferris - Witchfinder General, Original Motion Picture SoundtrackThe release of Paul Ferris' score for Witchfinder General has been long-awaited by horror film soundtrack aficionados. Parts of it did appear as part of De Wolfe's library series of vinyl issues during the early 70's but until now it's never received a full authorised release. Remastered from the original quarter-inch tape - long considered lost - and including two unused tracks, the package also features extensive liner notes by John Hamilton - author of Beasts In The Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career Of Tony Tenser - about the film and its music.
Today Witchfinder General is regarded as the final piece of a trinity of soundtracks that include Blood On Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man. Yet whereas the soundtrack to Anthony Shaffer's and Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man contributes to the atmosphere of the film, where traditional folk songs and original material composed (and sung) by Paul Giovanni, are performed by characters in the film, on the Witchfinder General soundtrack there are no inbuilt songs nor extraneous sounds carried over from the film onto the soundtrack. As a result you don't get to hear the sound of tolling bells, burning fires, crashing waves nor the patter of galloping horses that Reeves captures so vividly in the film. Nor are there the cries of the dying or the screams of Sara that play a pivotal role at the climax of the film that would segment the film to the soundtrack. Witchfinder General just doesn't work so well on its own; a knowledge of the film is required to really appreciate Ferris' score. Nonetheless it's an impressive and much awaited score.
The introductory voiceover pitches Witchfinder General as an historical account where Royalists are engaged in a civil war with Cromwell's Roundheads but Witchfinder General isn't solely a historical film. Co-financed by Tigon and AIP, Witchfinder General, loosely based on the novel by Richard Bassett, tells a fictional account of Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer turned witchfinder and his savage accomplice John Stearne who travel through East Anglia and Suffolk with a mission to extract confessions from those accused of witchcraft. The film starred Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall, a trooper in Cromwell's army, alongside the debut film appearance of Hilary Dwyer as Marshall's wife-to-be. Doomed genius director Michael Reeves devised Witchfinder General as an English revenge western and this is reflected in Ferris' score. Ferris confirmed the director's passion for The Magnificent Seven, claiming Reeves had watched it around 300 times. Ferris regarded The Magnificent Seven, along with The Third Man, as note perfect scores, claiming his own score was weaker due to the sequences being shorter which meant he wasn't able to develop the score more fully.
Witchfinder General is noteworthy for its use of landscape, using authentic sites for the villages, castles and open fields of East Anglia, a strategy followed by Piers Haggard on Blood On Satan's Claw - a subsequent Tigon production - which utilised a pastoral backdrop for the folk horror of his cult film, and more recently by Ben Wheatley on the fantastic psychedelic folk horror of A Field In England - which also incorporated traditional folk song in the film. Outside out of soundtracks, it's perhaps worth nothing, especially since I love it so much, The Eccentronic Research Council tackled the persecution of the Pendle witches, with scathing contemporary political undertones, on the stunning 1612 Underture released in 2012.
The score for Witchfinder General opens with a thunderous roar of drums following scenes of a body being hung from makeshift gallows and with a fanfare of trumpets the camera pans to Vincent Price, the Witchfinder General, as the titles roll with Ferris' evocative strings recalling a memory of the melody to the traditional English folk song 'Greensleeves'. Although 'Greensleeves' is regarded as the touchstone for the soundtrack by most viewers of the film and commentators on the soundtrack, Ferris believed his score was nothing like 'Greensleeves': "What I was aiming for was my own 'Greensleeves', a feeling of 'Greensleeves'. Because 'Greensleeves' for England is like 'Danny Boy' for Ireland." That said, I've always found a faint trace of 'Scarborough Fair' in the melody Ferris constructed for Witchfinder General.
It is however a motif which appears in subtle variations throughout the film. It's apparent in the 'Witchfinder General - Opening Titles' and in most sequences featuring the rural landscape of East Anglia, such as 'Nearly Home' where the beautiful string section and medieval folk of 'Greensleeves' accompanies Cornet Marshall as he gallops across the countryside. It also features prominently on the tranquil 'Peaceful Interlude' where amidst dreamy strings a harpsichord picks up the melody as Marshall steals a night of passion with his betrothed Sara. The marshalling of traditional folk with Ferris' homage to Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven soundtrack reaches its peak on 'Richard Rides To Sara', as Marshall crosses the fields of England and to the village of Brandeston and to Sara. The lush orchestration with trumpets is like a meeting of an Ennio Morricone scored Western soundtrack mixed with a dreamy pastoral Englishness. That Morricone influence was further explored in a schmaltzy version - not included here - of the 'Love Theme From Witchfinder General' released as a single by the Roberto Mann Orchestra and Chorus in 1968 on the Decca label.
Yet not all landscape scenes are accompanied by a western theme. 'Action Mood' dispenses with the 'Greensleeves'-esque soundtrack for dramatic horns for the horseback sequence where Marshall chases Stearne across the green countryside or on 'To Lavenham' where Marshall races towards the picturesque East Anglia village where he has sent Sara to safety.
Ferris assembled a 55-piece orchestra for the making of the soundtrack, and in order to achieve his aims paid for much of it from his own fee something that Reeves ensured Tigon reimbursed. As a result Ferris ensured his score was filled with drama and intrigue - which the censor rightly claimed heightened the inherent violence of the film. Even though the soundtrack was laid down before cuts were made at the behest of the BBFC; Ferris stated that the cuts made minimal interference to his score. Much of the Witchfinder General soundtrack comprises short incidental themes to accentuate the visuals, most successfully as a counterpoint to the violence and brutality. It is most noticeable on the scenes where innocent victims are being tortured. Just listen to 'Interrogation of the Priest' where Stearne at the command of Hopkins tortures the Catholic priest John Lowes: "One who gives worship to Satan and calls him Lord". Ominous strings merge with passages of drum rolls and timpani drum beats, as stuttering brass fanfares accompany the scenes of the priest - "A man who may not be what he seems to be" - being tortured as his skin is pricked to find the "Devils Mark" where no blood flows and no pain is felt before he is set to running in an attempt to extract his confession. And then there's 'The Moat' where scenes show the persescuted being plunged into water; where if they drown they are innocent and if they float they are deemed witches accompanied by a score of timpani beats, martial drum rolls, strings and portentous horns.
Paul Ferris, the composer, appeared briefly in the film as the aggrieved and suffering husband of Elizabeth Clarke, who perishes in a witch burning in Lavenham, referenced as 'The Widower' in one brief snippet of the soundtrack and in another where Cornet Marshall and Sara are accused of witchcraft just before Paul Ferris (credited as Morris Jar, a humorous play on David Lean's composer Maurice Jarre) has a fatal confrontation with Hopkins and Stearne.
Paul Ferris (along with Nicky Henson who appeared as Swallow in Witchfinder General and more noteworthy as Tom Latham in the cult movie Psychomania) had penned tracks for Cliff Richard and the Shadows, were part of the director's social circle and Ferris on his own had scored the soundtrack to Reeves' previous cinematic outing The Sorcerers, a film which also featured Ian Ogilvy beside the elderly Boris Karloff. It is said Reeves was looking to assemble a group who would go on to make films together. It never happened, months after the completion of Witchfinder General Michael Reeves, who struggled with depression, died in 1969 of what has been ascribed to an accidental drug overdose. Paul Ferris never achieved his potential either. After some further scores for vastly inferior films, Paul Ferris retrained for a life on the sea. The removal of his score on US editions of Witchfinder General in favour of a synthesizer score by Kendall Schmidt in the 1980s would have added to his decline. Ferris, who had also battled with depression throughout his life and had at least one unsuccessful suicide attempt, was diagnosed with Huntington's disease and died of a drug overdose in 1985.
With intrigue and tension and some beguiling tender moments, Witchfinder General is a wonderfully evocative score capturing the open landscape of rural England. When placed against the visuals, it contrasts vividly to the on-screen brutality and violence. On its own its effect is somewhat diminished but those familiar with the film which represents the best example of Michael Reeves short cinematic career won't be disappointed. After countless years, this edition is a wonderful tribute to Paul Ferris and his work with Michael Reeves on what is rightly regarded as one of British cinema's finest horror films. A vinyl edition would be nice though. For more information go to www.dewolfe.co.uk