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Wicked Witches: Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General #2

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.

Witchfinder General #1

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.

Grade: A-

Witchfinder General is available on DVD.

Wicked Witches: The Witches (1967)

The Witches #1

by Steve Habrat

With Hammer Films having their gothic claws around ghouls like vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and psycho killers, it makes perfect sense that they’d also haunt the witch subgenre. In 1966, Hammer released director Cyril Frankel’s The Witches, a slow-burn effort that is based on the novel The Devil’s Own by Norah Lofts. Heavily lacking their trademark gothic atmosphere, The Witches doesn’t particularly feel like a Hammer horror film. If the credits didn’t tell you it was one of their releases, you’d have absolutely no idea they were even involved with it. With Hammer leaning so heavily on the atmosphere of their films, it is nice to find an effort that focused more on story rather than spooky graveyards and creaky old castles to really send a shiver. While the story driven approach is fine enough, The Witches suffers from a bit too much down time, resulting in a film that often times bores the viewer more than it entertains them. Despite the trudging pace and the laughable climax, the film does feature a strong performance from actress Joan Fontaine, who was the one who convinced Hammer to make the film in the first place.

The Witches introduces us to Gwen Mayfield (played by Joan Fontaine), a missionary working in Africa who has a traumatic encounter with a witch doctor. Three years after the traumatic experience, Gwen takes a job as a schoolteacher in the small English town of Heddaby. Gwen arrives in the tranquil village and slowly gets to know the locals, who all appear to be friendly enough. Life seems to be going great for Gwen until she notices a romance budding between two of her students, Ronnie (played by Martin Stephens) and Linda (played by Ingrid Boulting). The romance seems harmless enough until one day Ronnie reports that he saw Linda’s guardian, Granny Rigg (played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies), brutally punishing her. Gwen investigates the report but Linda and Granny dismiss the incident. As the days pass, Gwen begins to notice that the locals seem to treat Linda strangely, but things really get suspicious when Gwen finds a headless voodoo doll stuck in a tree and Ronnie mysteriously falls into a coma. After Ronnie’s father turns up dead and she has another voodoo-like encounter, Gwen is convinced that the seemingly cheery town is hiding something. To make things worse, she begins to suspect that there may be a sinister side to her wealthy employers, Alan (played by Alec McCowen) and Stephanie (played by Kay Walsh) Bax.

The Witches opens on a positive note, with an uneasy scare that leaves you wanting to see just what comes next. As voodoo drums bang on the soundtrack, Gwen and two petrified men quickly try to close up shop before a witch doctor and his followers can come bursting through the door to cast his awful spells. It’s intense enough and it leads you to believe that Frankel will be able to handle to the really creepy stuff with equal amounts of gusto. This sequence is grossly misleading. The Witches then switches over to mystery and suspicion as Gwen settles into her scenic new home. The scary stuff starts out small, with a strange occurrence here and there. There is Ronnie’s chilling story about Granny Rigg putting Linda’s hand in a clothes ringer and there is Granny Rigg encouraging a cat to follow Gwen home, all little things that suggest that there might be a sinister side to this seemingly happy community. Where Frankel really starts to botch it is when the bigger scares start to emerge. In one of the sillier moments, he zooms his camera in repeatedly on Gwen’s terrified expression, all while exaggerated music screams at us to react. This jolt doesn’t work, and it makes you wish that he had handled it with the same sort of casual style that he handled the first half.

The Witches #2

Where The Witches really falls apart is during the ludicrous climax that has the villagers of Heddaby performing an unintentionally hilarious ritual that finds Stephanie, the head witch, hoping to literally get inside Linda’s skin. The climax finds Frankel working in the trademark gothic atmosphere we have all come to expect from Hammer, as the ritual takes place in a muddy tomb nestled in an overgrown graveyard. Despite the atmosphere, it can’t cover for the bizarre dance routines, the overacting, the fully clothed orgy that appears to take place, or the fact that the ritual can be stopped in the most nonsensical way possible. It’s not frightening by any stretch of the imagination and we certainly don’t fear for any of our protagonists. There is also the fact that it seems to be completely out of place when joined to the rest of the film, which worked hard to establish a subtler approach to the material. Had Frankel decided not to have the villagers hop around and rub up against each other like dogs, the ritual may have taken on a spookier vibe. He even could have cut a few of the lights he has shining down on the action to give the events taking place a bit of an ominous vibe. Sadly, he doesn’t and as a result he destroys his entire picture.

While the climax may shatter the entire film, the actors still manage to give some respectable performances before the project implodes on itself. Fonataine is strong and charismatic as Gwen, the blonde-haired detective of our witchy story. You will genuinely root for her to get to the bottom of all the suspicious events that are taking place within the community. You will also catch yourself fearing for her sanity when familiar voodoo dolls start popping up around her bedroom. Kay Walsh flaunts a sinister side as Stephanie, a seemingly skeptical individual who really is the head witch. It’s a shame that the silliness of the climax does her character in the way that it does. Stephens does a fine job with his small role as Ronnie, Linda’s concerned suitor who unknowingly gets in the way of evil, and Boulting oozes mystery as the seemingly sheltered Linda. Overall, while The Witches is beautifully shot and eerily composed early on, Frankel stumbles over the later scares and a climax that wouldn’t terrify a five-year-old. It’s a low point for Hammer, and it leaves you wishing that they had stuck to what they did best—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and psycho killers.

Grade: D+

The Witches is available on DVD.