“By the way, you know what they call me now? The Witchfinder General” – Matthew Hopkins
To many Vincent Price aficionados, the titular character in The Abominable Dr. Phibes is considered to be his greatest role. The film was wicked and charming, and Price’s performance was one not to be forgotten quickly. But just three years previous, in 1968, Price had starred in a chilling little British Horror, Witchfinder General. Often lumped into the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe category of films of the late 1960’s (shortly renamed The Conqueror Worm in the United States), the film seemed to have slipped under the radar of many a Horror fan.
Set in 1645, Witchfinder General takes place during England’s civil strife as the Parliament Party and the Royalists battle for control over the country. As the fighting rages on, the land has become lawless, leaving men like Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his particularly sadistic partner in crime, John Stearne (Robert Russell), free to exploit the power of religion and superstition. Hopkins’ is the countries’ ‘Witchfinder’, travelling from village to village hanging, burning and mutilating young men and women who stand accused of dealing in Magic & Sorcery. For every Witch burned, Hopkins’ becomes increasingly powerful, gaining wealth and respect in every corner of the country. But after the murder of his fiancés father (an elderly Catholic priest), a youthful Soldier vows to hunt and destroy the cruel Witchfinder once and for all.
When I first sat down to watch Witchfinder General, although I was excited to see this apparent gem, I had several expectations. One, It was going to either very cheesy or unintentionally hilarious. Two, I was afraid there were bound to be some pacing issues, bad editing, dodgy sound, the works. Alas, once I sat down on the sofa and popped in the DVD, this was not to be. The film I saw was not only a genuine Horror classic, but also one of the best British films I’ve ever seen. Up there with The Wicker Man and Horror of Dracula, Witchfinder General is a dark, sinister and thrilling picture. The opening scene really sets the tone, as we are immediately given front row-centre seats to the ghastly act of executing the accused Witches. Dragged to the top of a hill by several men, with several villagers following behind, a ragged, beaten and bruised elderly woman is strung up and hung as a priest reads from his Bible. After a brief credit sequence, we’re introduced to Richard Marshall, a young, strapping soldier for the English Army, as he marches through the forest with his platoon. They are attacked, and several soldiers are shot. The sequence really cements the film’s boundaries, as with the opening scene, we are witness to a very violent act. It’s now clear to us, the viewer, that this is a society on the brink of madness, with severe superstitions and a raging war all around.
It’s not until after this, that we are introduced to the Witchfinder himself. “You are all to be tied in a prescribed fashion, and cast into the moat”. At first glance, I thought Price’s character was executing these women on a whole hearted belief that they are the daughters of Satan himself. But such is the brilliance of his performance. As the film progresses, Hopkins quickly unveils himself as a manipulating, greedy and sexually aggressive man. And what’s worse, he has the respect and power to get away with it all. And what’s even worse than that again – he has an equally distasteful sidekick, John Stearne. Stearne carries out the ‘interrogations’ (i.e. beating women/men to a bloody pulp until they mutter something akin to a confession) and you can tell, this guy really loves his job.
To make a long story shorter, after Stearne and Hopkins land themselves in hot water, so begins the chase between Marshall and the evil Witchfinder.
When broken down to its most basic, Witchfinder General is a classic example of the ‘Good versus Evil’ tales of yesteryear. You have your hideously evil force, in the form of Matthew Hopkins battling the honourable, courageous and handsome Marshall. This brings me to the film’s ending. The climax of the film, for me, was the only weak part. Not weak in the sense that it was a letdown, on the contrary, Witchfinder offers up a rather satisfyingly violent end, but weak in the sense that I found it to be ever so slightly rushed. Without spoiling anything, I had hoped for a longer struggle between the good & evil characters. The entire second half of the film leads up to this point, so I expected a lengthier confrontation (not a Luke & Vader confrontation, but you know what I mean) and a little more action. After letting the film settle in my thoughts, I found myself thinking a little more action isn’t even very necessary, although I would have liked it. We’re provided with a nihilistic, bleak ending that works well, considering the tone set in the film.
Overall, I really recommend anyone who hasn’t seen this, to see it as soon as possible. And for those Vincent Price fans that have yet to see it...Shame on you!
An interesting nugget of Information for the trivia hungry; Witchfinder’s Director and Writer, Michael Reeves committed suicide merely months after the film’s release in the United States. He had been working on getting another Poe adaptation off the ground, The Oblong Box (which was eventually made and once again starred Horror icon, Vincent Price).
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