by Steve Habrat
You don’t have to be a horror fan or cinema buff to know that legendary horror actor Vincent Price was known for his winking villainy. His iconic voice and his mysterious appearance landed him roles in numerous low-budget horror films from William Castle and Roger Corman; two men who knew how to playfully lure an audience into the local drive-in. While he may have made a name for himself grinning at the audience through pictures like House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler, he certainly wasn’t camping up his role in the 1968 witch-hunting horror film Witchfinder General. Directed by Michael Reeves and loosely based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, Witchfinder General is a startlingly dark and brutal look at witch hunting during the English Civil War. Loaded with still-shocking scenes of rape, torture, and graphic execution, Witchfinder General is heavily interested in the realistic side of witch hunting. There are no craggy-faced women huddled around a cauldron, wearing pointy hats, or chanting spells in this witchy horror film. The real monsters of this picture are the men who hunted down innocent civilians and mercilessly tortured them in the hopes that they would confess to conspiring with the devil. That evil is brought to life by Price, who delivers one of the best performances of his career as the “Witchfinder General” himself, Matthew Hopkins.
Witchfinder General begins in 1645, explaining that England is caught in a savage civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. In the midst of the civil war are witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (played by Vincent Price) and his vicious assistant John Stearne (played by Robert Russell). Hopkins and Stearne ride from town to town ferreting out accused witches, torturing them, and then putting them to death. Hopkins and Stearne arrive in the quiet town of Bradeston, where they seek out a priest by the name of John Lowes, who has been accused of being a witch. Hopkins proceeds to torture Lowes right in his own home, but during the process he is stopped Lowes’ beautiful niece Sara (played by Hilary Dwyer). Sara offers herself to Hopkins in the hopes that he will spare her uncle. Her deal works for a while, but after Stearne discovers what is going on, he rapes Sara and hints that he knows what Hopkins has been up to. Hopkins immediately orders that Lowes be put to death, and then hastily departs once the execution has been carried out. Devastated, Sara turns to her fiancé, Richard Marshall (played by Ian Ogilvy), a Roundhead soldier who has returned for his bride. Enraged by Sara’s story, Richard sets out to find the witch hunters and make them pay for what they have done.
After only five minutes, it’s pretty clear that Witchfinder General is learning towards exploitative horror. The viewer is forced to watch an accused witch is drug to her death by a silent procession. She screams and cries the entire way, her pleas for her life ignored as she is strung up in a noose and then violently dropped. Reeves never cuts away from the death, allowing the unnerving realism to really sink in. Watching the senseless murder in the distance is Hopkins, making sure his gruesome work is mercilessly carried out to the max. This is exactly how Witchfinder General plays out, with prolonged scenes of torture and death. With such a glaringly small budget (a majority of the film takes place outside with only a handful of extras in each shot), the gore effects are surprisingly good, not overly elaborate yet graphic and painful nonetheless. We are treated to a horrific procedure where suspected witches are dipped into a river from a bridge to see if they float or drown, a cringe-inducing ritual that involves being pricked in the back with a needle, a nasty kick to the eyeball with a horse spur, an unblinking burning, and a gruesome murder that finds one character being hacked up with an axe. There is not one nasty scene in the film that feels cheap or fake despite the fact that the blood being used resembles melted candle wax.
The violence of Witchfinder General certainly shocks, but it’s the unbelievably chilly performance from Price that will absolutely floor the viewer. It is widely said that Reeves didn’t want Price in the role of Hopkins and he made his feelings known on the set. With Hopkins, Price is all business, shooting squinty and suspicious looks at each and every man, woman, and child that steps in his line of sight. He rides proudly through town, proclaiming that he does such great work in the name of the Lord that his superiors have taken to calling him the “Witchfinder General,” a title he wears with bloodthirsty glee. The performance is amazingly vile and it’s obvious that Price reached into some dark places to muster that performance. Equally nasty is Russell as John Stearne, the sadistic torturer who enjoys bragging about his profession in town pubs. His behavior in the torture cells is wicked, but it’s the way he drunkenly composes himself in public that is beyond repulsive. Pitted against these two hounds of Hell is Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall, who trembles with rage over the atrocious acts that these two men have carried out. He rides like lightning across the countryside searching high and low for his targets and when he finds them, he becomes an unstoppable killing machine.
Made for a little over $100,000, Witchfinder General doesn’t really have much in the way of lavish sets or chilling atmosphere. It gets under your skin with the violence and depravity that can lurk in each and every one of us. With much of the film-taking place outdoors, Reeves makes excellent use of the scenic English countryside. There are only a few major set pieces, one being a desecrated home/church that Hopkins has left in ruin and another is an outdoor sequence in the town of Lavenham. The scene finds Hopkins burning a woman to death right smack dab in the middle of the town while the villagers look on with the coldest expressions imaginable. It’s probably the grandest and most terrifying sequence of the entire film. The rest of the epic scale is milked through wide shots of green fields, roaring beaches, and early autumn forests. Overall, off-screen tensions and tight budgets aside, Witchfinder General is an incredibly powerful witch-hunt horror film that rattles the viewer with its unspeakably real violence. It’s through this realistic tone that Reeves is able to examine the appalling underbelly of humanity and rub our faces right in the violence. The film also achieves greatness through Price, who blazes through the carnage like the devil incarnate. It’s a performance that you never knew existed in Price and one you will never forget. A gruesome cult classic.
Witchfinder General is available on DVD.