Witchfinder General is a title that I have seen on DVD wish lists, and in any discussion of Vincent Price. Since its release in 1968, the film has gathered quite the cult following and had much praise heaped upon it.
What does that mean to those of us who are unfamiliar with it? Well, the big thing is the hype that is built up in your head, which leads to high expectations. Cases like this are almost assured of being a letdown. It is a no-win situation as few movies actually live up to all the hype. That said, Witchfinder General is definitely a good movie — just be sure to keep your expectations in check.
The film is based on a novel by Ronald Bassett, which is based on real events and a real person. I know that much of it is fictionalized, but this is no bio-pic. The setting is realistic; there is nothing terribly unbelievable, save for some unconvincing dialogue and performances. It is set in England in 1645, a time of unrest as Civil War is raging between Cromwell and his Roundheads and King Charles' Royalists. This unrest has left much of the land without any truly organized law and order. Much of the company had strong Christian faith and the uncertain times led to those beliefs and fears being exploited.
Matthew Hopkins was one of those men doing the exploiting. Hopkins was a failed lawyer who turned to ferreting out witches for money. He came to be known as Witchfinder General due to his expertise at eliciting confessions from these idolaters. This nefarious character is at the center of Witchfinder General, a truly disconcerting film when you realize that these acts are not that far removed from reality.
The opening scene sees a gallows pole in the final stages of its erection, as a crowd, led in prayer by a priest, approaches with a bound and screaming woman. There is no talk, aside from the praying, as they put her on a stool, place the rope around her neck and kick out the stool. As the woman hangs, the crowd turns and moves back towards the town. The camera zooms in on a lone figure in the background. Matthew Hopkins watches on coldly as the woman swings. The credits then come up over grainy, black and white photos of women with pained faces.
The story shifts to a trio who will become forever entwined with Hopkins. In essence, their fate is sealed before they even meet. Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is one of Cromwell's men. After saving his commanding officer from a Royalist, he heads to his home town of Brandeston to visit his fiancée, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer). She is staying there with her uncle, John Lowes (Rupert Davies), the town priest. The visit ends with Marshall leaving town. On the way he crosses paths with Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his partner John Stearne (Robert Russell). Upon asking, he learns that Hopkins has been called to the town to investigate allegations of witchcraft. Oh fateful day — Marshall will regret not questioning further.
Hopkins rides into town, as he had presumably done in countless towns before, gets the accusation and confronts the accused. The man or woman will assuredly deny the charge, leaving Stearne to apply the latest in interrogation techniques to elicit a confession of witchcraft. In Brandeston the accused is the priest. See where this is headed? Well, a confession is obtained and the man is put to death.
This execution gets back to Marshall, who immediately rushes to town to find out what happened. Upon his discovery of the facts, he sets out to have revenge on Hopkins. The rest of the film consists of a slowly built up tension leading to a confrontation between the two men.
Watching it straight through is nothing terribly special. However, if you pay attention to what is happening, the implications stand out and are quite horrifying. Events like these actually happened. Combine that with the bone-chillingly cold performance of Vincent Price and you have the elements for a memorable film. What drives everything home is the conclusion. I will not give it away save to say that nobody gets out unscathed.
Witchfinder General was directed and co-written by Matthew Reeves, an up and coming director. While much of it is straightforward, there are some very nice shots throughout, and the build-up to the climax is very strong. It is a shame that this ended up being his final film, as he died of an overdose in 1969 at the age of 26.
Audio/Video. Not perfect, but likely the best we will get considering the age and low budget roots. The video is a bit faded and the audio a bit thin, but nothing to really complain too much about. After all, the content of the movie is king.
Extras. A couple of extras are included on this MGM Midnite Movies release.
- Commentary. The track features actor Ian Ogilvy and co-producer Philip Waddilove. I listened to a little bit of the track and it turned out to be quite good. Lots of information as they reminisce on the making of the film and working with Vincent Price.
- Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic. A featurette focusing on Reeves and the film and the talent that he had at a young age and what the film was able to accomplish.
Bottom line. Best movie ever? No. Live up to the hype? Not really. However, this is still a very good movie. Price's performance is electric. The implications truly horrifying. A conclusion that will not soon be forgotten. Give it a shot, you will not be disappointed.