Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968)

The Year’s Most Violent Film!

In 17th century England, the country is engulfed in civil war with the King and his Cavaliers battling Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads for control. During this time, law and order in society has become farcical in some areas. Matthew Hopkins and his henchman, Stearne, are witch hunters, travelling across the countryside from village to village, being paid handsomely by the townsfolk for extracting confessions from ‘witches’ and then executing them. They come across a priest of a small town who is accused of being a witch. In order to save her uncle from execution, Sara offers herself to Hopkins. He gladly agrees to this but when he is forced to leave the village on other business, Stearne finds out and proceeds to rape her. When Hopkins returns and finds out, he no longer has any use for Sara and kills her uncle. When her fiancé finds out, he abandons his post in Cromwell’s army to hunt down and kill Hopkins and Stearne.

 

Boy was I not expecting this! Witchfinder General was never a film to pull me with a thrilling-sounding plot because I thought it was just going to be another period piece similar to the output that Hammer had been producing for years. Not that there is anything wrong with the Hammer films (totally the opposite), it seemed pointless to me to sit and watch a period film done by someone else who wouldn’t be able to live up to Hammer’s usual standards. However this is anything but your average period horror. Torture, rape, violence and a nasty underlying tone are the foundations for this film and for 1968, that’s a big shocker.

Witchfinder General‘s strongest moments are the nasty ones and that is just for the sheer imagery of it all. The film opens with a group of villages dragging an accused witch up a hill followed by a priest reading from the Bible and then ending with the woman hanging from the end of a noose. It sets the tone early for what promises to be a nasty, uncompromising ride. The scenes of people being dropped into castle moats to see if they float are shockingly realistic. The torture scenes are done tastefully too (if there is such a thing) – later films would add a touch of eroticism and perversion to proceedings with half-naked hotties hanging from chains. Here there is no nudity, just brutal violence and nothing too flash either. The most horrific moment comes later in the film when Hopkins and his associate preside over a poor screaming woman being lowered into a fire at the end of a ladder. The sad thing is that this all took place back in the country in the 17th century so it really hits home just how barbaric things were back then. This is all brought to life on film in realistic detail. Reeves doesn’t glorify the proceedings nor makes them the focal point of the film. It is a character-driven piece but because the story sucks you in, the shock and horror of what happens hits home more than it should.

Vincent Price has always been associated with hammy, cheesy performances in dubious horror outings and that tag is never going to change. But here Price is anything but the cartoony bad guy you’ll have seen him portray in other films. As Matthew Hopkins, Price is just amazing. You’re never quite sure what the character’s intentions are. Does he really believe he’s doing the work of God by eliminating witches? Or is he just a perverted man, out to get laid and a sack full of cash by abusing his power and authority at a time when no one knew any better (or could do anything about it for that matter)? Price seems to have been born to play this role.

The rest of the cast is great too, with particular mention going to the scowling Robert Russell playing the henchman, Stearne. It’s a pity that more isn’t made of the final confrontation and the film ends a bit suddenly but it’s being picky on a pretty superb film.

 

About as bleak and sinister as any British horror film I’ve ever seen, Witchfinder General is must-see viewing for anyone with a shred of interest in classic British horror. Something like this would never have been made today so enjoy it whilst you can. In my opinion it’s second only to The Wicker Man in the ‘you’ll never forget it’ stakes.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Related Movies

Post a comment