When movies are released with an alternative title, often there’s a new poster created to go with the change of name. And sometimes the new poster proves to be better than the original (though more often there’s no difference either way). In 1968, the British production company Tigon released a movie based on a novel by Ronald Bassett called Witchfinder General. The movie was directed by wunderkind Michael Reeves, and starred Vincent Price in what would come to be regarded as one of his very best performances.
The above poster was used in the UK, and while it has a lot to say for itself in terms of the activity presented within its frame, it’s not the best example of a horror movie poster from the period. The title is shown in large block capitals, but more in the style of an historical epic rather than the low-budget horror movie it’s actually about. And the image of Vincent Price, with its backdrop of rising flames, isn’t the best representation of the actor you’re ever likely to see, what with his beady eyes and protruding lower lip. There are – unfortunately – lots of other areas where the poster design lacks imagination, and in the case of the woman on the left hand side with her arms raised who looks like she’s wearing a bikini, quality control. There’s a riot of activity going on across the image, and while some of it – the burnings, Price’s black-cloaked figure – are relevant to the movie, there’s far more that isn’t, and there’s a sense that a cast of thousands has been assembled to match the intensity of the material (completely unlikely, though, as a plan to shoot the Battle of Naseby was scrapped as it would involve hiring too many extras). And then there’s the typeface, underlined in red for no reason at the top, taking up the bottom fifth of the poster, and leading to the central images being squashed between the two. In short, it’s a messy, jumbled effort and does the movie it’s advertising no favours.
In the US it was a whole different ballgame (as it usually is). Co-producers on the movie, American International Pictures, wanted to play up the presence of Vincent Price and link it in to the various Edgar Allan Poe movies they’d produced earlier in the decade. Of course, Reeves’ tale of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General takes place roughly two hundred years before Poe’s career made him famous, so there can’t be any kind of connection at all, but AIP were the kind of company that wouldn’t let a simple thing like an historical mismatch get in the way of selling a movie. And as for that title, well it’s not very witch-y, is it?
The title change does have a certain charm, and on its own it’s an ominous enough combination, but it doesn’t adequately reflect the content of the movie. The poster though, for all its adherence to the lie that this is an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe tale, gets much more right than its British predecessor. The admonition to stay home with your children if you’re too squeamish is straight out of low-budget horror movie marketing for the time, but for once, it’s not false advertising. Reeves’ approach to the material was to highlight the sadism and the cruelty of the period, and while the UK censors took umbrage at some of the scenes in the movie and they were removed, US viewers saw the movie in a version that was virtually intact. And instead of a pouting, disapproving-looking Price staring out at you, AIP went with a mangled skull with one eye still in place, its tousled, straw-like hair like roots growing out of the skull itself. It’s definitely an arresting image, and one that isn’t constrained by the more orderly typeface seen at the top left and along the bottom of the image. It’s also the kind of horrifying image you might see in an illustrated version of Poe’s stories, and not a tale of witch-hunting in 17th century England. But it works, almost completely, with the only caveat being that its depiction of the crosses Hopkins’ victims are tied to, don’t match up to those in the movie (and really, that’s just a minor gripe at best).
So, to be clear, AIP took a movie they’d co-financed, they changed the title, they made it look and sound like another of their Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, they added an image with no relevance to the content of the movie at all, and they did it with full awareness that they were misrepresenting their own movie. And yet – it works, and more powerfully than Tigon’s version. Maybe there’s a lesson in there, somewhere, but one thing’s for sure, sometimes artistic licence really is the way to go.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment.