Music Reviews
Witchfinder General OST

Paul Ferris Witchfinder General OST

(De Wolfe Music) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Michael Reeves grew up in the Suffolk countryside; bucolic surroundings that seem an unlikely breeding ground for the mind behind some of the most controversial yet loved low-budget horror movies of the 1960s. His most renowned work is 1968’s Witchfinder General, the tale of a lawyer (played by Vincent Price) who travels on a cocktail of blackmail and murder. Reeves was only 24 when he directed and co-wrote the novel adaptation but less than a year after its release, he was dead, the victim of an accidental overdose of barbiturates.

For Reeves’ final and most famous film, he was paired with composer Paul Ferris, who had a small part in the film itself. Ferris was known in the industry for his work on horror soundtracks throughout the period but, like Reeves, it was Witchfinder General that was to be his finest hour. However, thanks to a complex web of rights rows, when the film was released for home cinema, Ferris’ original compositions had been replaced by a synthesiser score. It wasn’t until 2007, when the film was released on DVD, that Witchfinder General was reunited with its intended musical accompaniment. Despite that, the film’s soundtrack has never been available as a stand-alone piece until now.

Ferris has freely admitted that he was heavily influenced by the traditional English folk song, Greensleeves, in the creation of the Witchfinder General soundtrack, and its hallmarks are easy to spot. There are a couple of riffs and phrases that are continually revisited throughout the record’s thirty-plus tracks, with one in particular – the Witchfinder’s theme, if you like – bearing a strong resemblance to a pastoral, Mediaeval madrigal.

What’s particularly striking upon listening to this record is that while the film itself was low-budget (official figures put the total at £83,000), the soundtrack sounds anything but. String sections are full and lustrous, brass is warm and true, and the remastering process has brought out the minute intricacies and characteristics of the woodwind. Despite being initially designed to be little more than the partner to a notoriously sadistic cinematic experience (the British Board of Film Classification made many cuts), there’s a real love and craft at the heart of this soundtrack.

A smattering of shorter tracks, presumably created for brief bursts of horrific on-screen activity, interrupt the ebb and flow of this collection as an album in its own right, but that’s an unavoidable consequence of the soundtrack composer’s art. Where the Witchfinder General OST is most affecting is on the longer pieces, where Ferris is given more space to adequately explore a theme, to build the music and to bring each composition to its natural conclusion. These songs are ameliorated further with the presence of the aforementioned recurring melodies and themes, making the soundtrack a cinematic experience in itself.

Despite its stand-out moments, the Witchfinder General OST isn’t often an easy listen, primarily because the sheer number of tracks makes it hard to get a foothold, and there are up to ten minutes at a time when it’s little more than rich and expertly-played notes, without any indication of form. However, the difficulty experienced may partly be the corollary of a life spent listening almost exclusively to more traditionally paced and assembled albums, and this soundtrack is well worth checking out.

Like Michael Reeves, Paul Ferris sadly never got to enjoy the legacy of his best-known work getting its own day in the sun. Having long suffered from a degenerative genetic disease, he took his own life in 1995, at the age of 53; a sad end to the story of a film forever associated with lengthy disputes and tragic events.