Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General posterOn paper almost everything about Michael Reeve’s 1968 horror masterpiece, Witchfinder General, suggests a film that shouldn’t really work.

Taking the style of Hammer, melding it with the incoming violence of ‘The New Hollywood’, casting an American as a notorious British historical icon and filming on location in East Anglia smacks of a production gone awry before the camera even rolls, but somehow Reeves took this and constructed something that has entered the lexicon of popular culture.

The film recounts a fictionalised version of the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, a man seemingly self-described as England’s Witchfinder General, as he wrought a wave of terror across East Anglia at the height of the English civil war.

In this version he encounters and condemns a priest whose niece is betrothed to one of Cromwell’s soldiers, vowing revenge the soldier hunts down Hopkins to the film increasingly brutal dénouement.

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General
Vincent Price

The 1960s, Hammer like, style in which the film is shot, for the most part, makes the countryside look genuinely stricken and barren with very few people, and those encountered clearly terrified of either the war or the witchfinder. This combined with the opening where we see a woman being taken to the gallows and hanged sets the scene for what is to come.

The script and much of the acting is, at best, workman-like but the film centres on the charismatic presence of Vincent Price as Hopkins and, as ever, he dominates.

Even speaking with his distinctive American twang and his wryly ‘knowing’ manner he becomes a threatening figure with simply a well-placed look (much like his work in The Abominable Dr Phibes).

Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer in Witchfinder General
Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer

This is particularly noticeable during the judging and torture of the aforementioned priest where he and two more accused witches are dangled (for want of a better word) into a river. Throughout the scene Price’s Hopkins stands separate to the almost Python-esque mob and we see him observing through varying levels of close up which builds tension in a phenomenal way that never lets up for the rest of the movie.

The film became notorious for its violence and, while it’s not as graphic as some more modern fare, the particular style of violence is still amazingly effective. Often perpetrated to accused women and with much screaming and harsh sound effects, on top of lashings of ‘Kensington Gore’, it all adds to the view of the true brutality of Hopkins work.

Vincent Price and Robert Russell in Witchfinder General
Price and Robert Russell

Added to this the knowledge that, somewhere along the line, there is a hint of fact in all this, serves to heighten it even further making it clear why the film is still considered horrific enough to receive an 18 rating from the BBFC.

The final masterstroke that elevates the film comes in that it both opens and closes with a harsh, scream and a horrific scene and, while some things come to resolution, it is left open-ended in such a way as to merely hint at the horrors perpetrated by Hopkins in the name of God and the horrors of war and acts in the name of God to follow.

On top of all of this the film never lets up, across its 87 minutes it is packed with chases, action and horror in the way of the best of exploitation cinema. All of this combines to create a movie that with very good reason is still highly regarded along with the likes of The Wicker Man as something that marks a high point of British horror cinema.

and, as a bonus, because its a song a like a lot, here’s Hopkins (Witchfinder General) by Cathedral:

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