Out of all the exciting news currently coming out of the Cannes Film Festival, the news that John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) will be directing the Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) produced remake of Witchfinder General definitely ranks as some of the most exciting. The Refn production was initially announced at Cannes back in 2016 as a passion project for the auteur. The original Witchfinder General (1968) was directed by Michael Reeves, starring the late genre legend Vincent Price. The film was retitled for U.S. distribution as The Conqueror Worm and has amassed an impressive cult following in the decades since its initial release, Nicolas Winding Refn among them. The new Witchfinder General will be co-produced by Refn and Rupert Preston, through Bynwr.com and Sunrise Films respectively, along with Hillcoat’s own production company Blank Films. John Crocker (Woman in Black 2) will be handling screen writing duties.
Michael Reeves’ original Witchfinder General, based on Ronald Bassett’s novel, takes place in mid-17th century Norfolk, England. The film tells a dramatized story of actual “witch hunter” Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins committed gruesome, heinous acts of torture and murder during the English Civil War. The original film was criticized at the time of release for its graphic—for the time—depictions of torture and murder. Both the U.K. and the U.S. only showed heavily censored versions of the film, if theaters showed them at all. It wasn’t until Witchfinder General made its way to the grind-house theaters on both sides of the Atlantic in the 70s that the film really began to gain a cult following. Today it is considered essential horror viewing, but Witchfinder General didn’t take the easy road to get there.
If any two filmmakers’ previous body of work make them perfect to collaborate on any project then this is it. Nicolas Winding Refn has oft been criticized for the same types of cruelty and violence for violence sake that the original Witchfinder General has also been accused of every step of his career. John Hillcoat is known for bleak, violent films that are hard as nails and filled with pulp. If any team can take a classic like Witchfinder General and do something interesting with the concept while still stirring up plenty of controversy, it’s these two auteurs.
The original Witchfinder General is also one of the most famous British horror films of all time. Whether Refn and Hillcoat plan to keep the film British remains to be seen, but Refn did say it “gives him enormous satisfaction to produce John’s vision and bring the retelling of this classic British film to a new audience.” Does this mean 17th century England is going to be traded in for something more modern? Who knows! Director John Hillcoat did add that “the idea of a world pushed to extremes, where fear preys upon all, unleashing religious fanaticism, rival factions, tribalism, herectics, and witch hunts…feels strangely familiar in today’s world.” Putting those two sentences together, it’s easy to speculate that Nicholas Winding Refn and John Hillcoat have something totally new, timely, political, horrific, and disturbing in store with this reimagining of Witchfinder General.