Witchfinder General (1968)
Matthew Hopkins is the Witchfinder General, a man touring the country to cleanse the populace of witches. However, when his next target is the daughter of an elderly priest, her roundhead fiancé seeks revenge on the Witchfinder.
To begin with, don’t expect some soft 1960s hammer-type production. Michael Reeves’s movie is a gloomy historical yarn with the iconic Vincent Price in, without question, his most frightening role. Price discards the amusingly camp persona so usual of his horror career in pursuit of a devilish performance of a man rotten to the core and bent on carnal gratification of the highest degree.
The horror in Witchfinder has nothing to do with Witches. For sure, there is no hint of the supernatural here. Reeves’s disgust is with the mob hysteria and corruption of local officials, self-proclaimed kings of their districts who dish out both “justice and injustice in equal measure”. Price’s unreserved turn as Matthew Hopkins is the embodiment of such a man.
The soundtrack instantly grabs you right from the opening credits, transporting you to an England torn apart by war and feeding off religious superstition. The look of the film is tremendous, with flashy 17th century costumes anointing every scene and set-design of the highest calibre. The re-creation of 17th century England is probably the best I have seen. The movie is driven forward by a meticulous script dressed with Price’s mastery of high English elocution. Some of the best lines uttered by Price are “Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do….” and “They swim….the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang”.
But it’s not just the script which gives Witchfinder the allure of a valuable gemstone, it’s the cast. Before we even considering Price’s domineering performance, we have a young Ian Ogilvy as the roundhead captain out for revenge and vastly under-rated character actor Rupert Davies as a wrongfully accused Priest, who ends up being dangled from a bridge and hung. Hilary Dwyer plays the girl-in-peril, hand-picked by Price as a witch who must confess by pleasuring his wordly desires. Dwyer does a sterling job, and isn’t simply there for the aesthetics. In the closing moments she really comes out of her shell as her tortured screams echo around the stone walls of the castle atop the hill. This finale is cannily shot like some sort of deranged cartoon with silhouettes racing up the hill towards a castle to rescue our protagonists from the macabre clutches of Price.
It’s surprising, but true, that some of the scenes in Witchfinder are still uncomfortable to watch today. The scene in which Price burns a witch by slowly lowering her from a wooden crucifix into a funeral pyre is one of them. Others are lingering shots of corpses hanging from trees with the only sound that of a creaking noose audible over the still country air.
Overall, a wickedly-crafted movie rare in both its brutality and style. Up there with the best British horror movies of all time.
Hotdog rating: 9.5/10