This one really takes me back – Witchfinder General (1968) was directed by Michael Reeves, a director who was cited at the time as the great white hope of the British film industry, having made only two films before Witchfinder…, namely The She Beast (1966) starring Barbara Steele and Ian Ogilvy, and The Sorcerers (1967), but who proved himself more than capable of combining mood, intensity and beautiful cinematography with gut-wrenching horror in his last film.
Yes, Witchfinder General was his last film, tragically – the 26-year-old died from an accidental overdose of barbiturates (he was suffering from depression) and alcohol just nine months after the film, which Vincent Price pronounced as being the best he had ever made, was released.
Although heavily fictionalized, the film is based on the true-life story of 17th century English lawyer-turned-witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, who claimed to have been appointed as a ‘Witch Finder Generall’ by Parliament (except he wasn’t) during the English Civil War to root out sorcery and witchcraft. Being paid for his ‘services’ by town elders who were still very much living in fear of witchcraft, Hopkins was responsible for the brutal torture and murder of hundreds of perfectly harmless women (and men).
And Reeves proved himself more than capable of bringing intense torture and violence to the screen, so much so that the movie’s gruesome content was met with disgust by several film critics in the UK, even though the film had been extensively censored by the British Board of Film Censors. In the US, however, it was shown uncut and was a box office hit. As is so often the case, several prominent critics have since championed the film over the years, including J. Hoberman, Danny Peary and Derek Malcolm.
Vincent Price simply lives and breathes the role of Matthew Hopkins – an evil, cruel opportunist who sees his chance to take advantage of the breakdown in social order in 1645, the middle of the English Civil War, to impose a reign of terror on East Anglia. Aided by his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell), Hopkins visits many villages, brutally torturing confessions out of suspected witches before burning them alive and hanging them, taking their fees from local magistrates for their ‘work’. But Hopkins is set to find his nemesis in Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) a young Roundhead soldier, who swears mortal vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne after they terrorise the village of Brandeston where his lover Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Davies), the village priest, live. Sara is raped by Stearne after Hopkins has used her for his own sexual gratification in exchange for sparing the life of Lowes, who is murdered anyway along with two women by the pair. But what price may vengeance cost Marshall?
Quite brilliantly, Reeves shows a man (Ogilvy) who, in trying to remove an evil from society, succeeds only in duplicating the savagery – Price was never more loathsome, never better in fact, than in his performance as Hopkins, and the top-notch cast and excellent production values (achieved by Reeves on an extremely low budget) are exemplary.
And the violence? Well, it has an almost cinéma vérité feel to it – few will be the viewers who remain unmoved. An exercise in sadism? That would be your call, but it is an experience that will remain with you forever.