A horrific historical: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)

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By 1968, Vincent Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s various Edgar Allen Poe adaptations had brought him great success. To capitalise on this, Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm, after the Poe poem, for its US release. That Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins should be entirely camp-free will not be surprising to anyone who knows he had an extensive and diverse acting career before becoming a horror icon. What may surprise, even shock, is just how grim and pitilessly violent this film can be. Price himself was disturbed by Witchfinder General upon seeing it in the final cut, which serves as some indication that the film stands out from his usual fare.

Hopkins is based on the real “Witchfinder” from 17th century England. While the Roundheads and Royalists do battle up and down the country, Hopkins travels from village to village, accepting payments in return for testing, condemning and killing people singled out as witches. When Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) tries to save herself and her uncle John (Rupert Davies) by offering favours to Hopkins, the Witchfinder has made an enemy in her fiancée, Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy).

Witchfinder General succeeds as a historical film. The sets and costumes are not extravagant, but have an authentic feel. The cinematography and score are often beautiful, which is no doubt a commentary on the concealed cruelty that exists within these villages. The film is at its best when depicting this social climate of greed and gleeful malice. It manages to suggest enough that I wonder how much more interesting still the film could have been if it had spent more time on its setting, story and characters.

When people talk about Witchfinder General, I think they don’t put enough emphasis on how unclear Pierce’s motives initially are. On first viewing, we don’t know if Pierce believes in what he’s doing, or just how much he enjoys it. There’s some great ambiguity to the character; when Sara tries to seduce Hopkins, he gives little away and her plan seems on the verge of backfiring. Price is so restrained that he doesn’t make Hopkins’ pleasure in his work obvious – which is, perhaps, why the character is truly horrific.

The film’s other actors also give notable performances. Dwyer is so good as the wholesome and brave Sara that it’s hard to believe that this was her first film role. Ogilvy does well as the decent hero who descends into bloodlust. Davies makes John, a priest who prays for Hopkins even while facing torture and death, sympathetically tragic. Meanwhile, Robert Russell as Hopkins’ assistant John Stearne acts as a contrast to Price by portraying open sadism.

This film underwent some censorship, and in the unrated and restored version I watched, it’s easy to see which portions had been cut from the film. The quality changes drastically; if the entire film looked like this, it would be unwatchable. It is helpful, however, to see unequivocally what was censored. In my opinion, these frames are actually, with a few exceptions, not necessary. It’s usually clear what the characters are doing or intend to do, which causes a visceral enough reaction that we don’t need to see it. It is a little ridiculous that one segment seems to have been cut simply because a woman is screaming offscreen. However, so much of this film is full of women (and the occasional man) screaming, not to mention being hit, tied, drowned, stabbed, and burned, that it becomes hard to take.

This is just my personal opinion, however. Reactions to onscreen violence vary from viewer to viewer. I find that I like Witchfinder General enough as a well-made and well-acted historical film that I wish it was less horrific. Of course, the real witch hunts were more violent and terrible than what we see here, but this film is just too much for me. It’s best watched by horror fans, but there’s enough talent involved, and enough substance to it, to make it worth enduring at least once.

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