Movie Fact #224 - July 1st, 2021
Vincent Price may have served as the on-screen antagonist of the 1968 film Witchfinder General as Matthew Hopkins, but the antagonism also extended off-camera between Price and the film's director Michael Reeves. This is lent to the fact that Reeves originally envisioned Donald Pleasance (Known as Dr. Loomis in the Halloween films) in the role of Hopkins. However, once American International Pictures became involved in the production, they insisted that their contract star, Vincent Price, be given the lead, and Pleasence was dropped from the film. This angered Reeves who kept it no secret from everyone associated with the production that the American actor was not his choice for the role, and the director's comments had reached the actor back in the US. In fact, when Price went on location and met Reeves for the first time, the young director told the actor, "I didn't want you, and I still don't want you, but I'm stuck with you! Price recalled later on:
"Reeves hated me. He didn't want me at all for the part. I didn't like him, either. It was one of the first times in my life that I've been in a picture where the director and I just clashed. Michael Reeves could not communicate with actors. He would stop me and say, 'Don't move your head like that.' And I would say, 'Like what? What do you mean?' He'd say, 'There—you're doing it again. Don't do that'."
Things escalated to the point that, in one scene where Price shoots a flintlock between the ears of a horse, Price realized that Reeves had ordered that an actual blank charge was to be used so the weapon's puff of smoke would be visible, he shouted, "What? You want the gun to go bang between the ears of this fucking nag? How do you think he's going to react?" However, Reeves insisted and, when the gun went off, the horse reared and sent Price tumbling onto the ground. Price was not hurt but he was extremely angered by the incident. It culminated where, on the final day of shooting, Price showed up on the set visibly intoxicated which led to Reeves loudly declaring "He's drunk! I'll kill the bastard"...it was not just an expression it seems. During preparations for Price's violent death scene, instructing actor Ian Ogilvy (who played Cornet Richard Marshall) to "really lay into Vincent" with the stage axe. Producer Philip Waddilove had earlier found some foam padding and fitted Price's costume with it, protecting the actor from any injury.
The irony? Despite their onset tension, when Price saw the movie the following year, he admitted that he finally understood what Reeves had been after and wrote the young director a ten-page letter praising the film. Reeves wrote Price back, "I knew you would think so." Reeves died months after the film premiered at the age of 25 but, years after Reeves's death, Price said, "I realised what he wanted was a low-key, very laid-back, menacing performance. He did get it, but I was fighting him almost every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted, I would have cooperated." To this day, Witchfinder General has become a cult hit and is now regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. All of that conflict was ultimately worth it, it seems. Stay tuned!