Witchfinder General (1968)
“The Year’s Most Violent Film!”
Witchfinder General (1968)
Director: Michael Reeves
Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies
Synopsis: A young soldier seeks to put an end to the evils caused by a vicious witch hunter.
There’s quite a large cult following built up around the 1968 horror movie Witchfinder General, the reasons for which escape me. It’s not a bad movie; it boasts an agreeably understated appearance from a horror legend whose performances are usually the flavour of richest ham, and it takes its inspiration from the witch-hunts that wracked the East of England during the Civil War, a topic that remains largely unexplored by the cinema. However, the plot is crushingly run-of-the-mill, and its hero has less character than a witch’s broomstick.
Vincent Price (Laura, The Abominable Dr. Phibes) plays the title character Matthew Hopkins, a real-life figure whose three-year reign of terror claimed the lives of up to 300 innocent women. Here, he roams East Anglia with his sadistic sidekick John Stearne (Robert Russell), travelling from village to village to put to trial the wretched souls who find themselves falsely – and usually maliciously – accused of witchcraft. Hopkins, who has no Government sanction of his role, appears unconcerned that his victims are all innocent of the crimes for which they’re charged, and is interested only in the purse which goes with the job. He’s also not above exploiting his position of power to force young maidens into his bed, a manoeuvre he successfully employs with young Sara (Hilary Dwyer) who surrenders herself in the hope of winning a reprieve for her Uncle (Rupert Davies – Frightmare), a priest who finds himself the subject of Hopkins’ inhumane interrogation. However, when Sarah’s betrothed (Ian Ogilvy), a soldier in Cromwell’s army, learns of Hopkins’ manipulation of her, he vows to kill the witch hunter no matter what the cost.
As promising a director as Reeves was – and we’ll never know just how good he might have become seeing as he died of an accidental drugs overdose at the age of 25 – he can do little to disguise the cheapness of Witchfinder General. Much of the action takes place in empty fields, although the suspicion that motor vehicles are passing briskly by just off-camera is never far away. The few scenes that make use of genuine exterior locations add little to the atmosphere simply because the budget doesn’t appear to have stretched to costumes for more than a dozen or so extras. In one scene, a pub landlord’s heavy padding is painfully obvious beneath his shirt just before he receives a blow to the stomach. Most directors would have re-shot the scene, but Reeves was obviously deprived of that luxury. And although Price gives a surprisingly effective performance as the implacable Hopkins – thanks apparently to Reeves’ insistence that he refrain from his trademark camp delivery – there’s not much he can do to overcome a dull screenplay that uses what was then quite graphic violence to distract the audience from its paucity of plot. It’s only in the final scene, in which the depth of Marshall’s obsession with having his revenge on Hopkins becomes apparent, that Witchfinder General rises above the ordinary, but by that point we’re only seconds away from the end credits…
Oh, and a quick note to foreign readers who viewed the export version: please don’t come over to Britain believing that the female clientele of our pubs are in the habit of sitting around topless. It hardly ever happens, so you’ll only be disappointed…
(Reviewed 19th May 2015)