Witchfinder General (1968)

When it’s on: Friday, 30 October (12.35 am, Saturday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s an argument that none of the films I’ve chosen to cover during Halloween week are in fact part of the horror genre. They’re all offbeat in some way, and today’s entry, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, from 1968, is as much a slice of historical fiction as it is horror. There really was a Matthew Hopkins, who roamed East Anglia and Suffolk during the English Civil War era, rooting out and executing hundreds of women convicted for witchcraft and being paid for every one. Legend has it he was responsible for 300 deaths, all carried out legally and by parliamentary mandate, and since his death in 1647 his reputation as a bogeyman has grown and grown.

All of which said, Witchfinder General is definitely a horror movie, even with its absence of supernatural thrills. Hopkins is portrayed at his worst – an opportunist taking advantage of Britain’s lawlessness during a time of turmoil to move from town to town, killing people for profit. That none of the victims are actually witches is incidental; they’re tortured to the point of confessing, at which stage they’re killed in increasingly gruesome ways, from being hanged to tied up and lowered onto fires. Hopkins then receives guineas for his services and goes on to the next village with accusations to make. At times like these, life is cheap and death a spectator sport. One particularly nasty moment finds a crowd gathered to watch impassively as a ‘witch’ is incinerated, and then children bake potatoes in the fire that contains her burning ashes.

Hopkins is played by Vincent Price, far from Reeves’s choice as the last thing required was a hammy, florid performer; rather he wanted an actor capable of more subtle, reptilian evil and had Donald Pleasance in mind. However, American International Productions, which put up much of the film’s slim £83,000 budget, forced their star name onto the project, seeing it as a continuation of Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from earlier in the decade, indeed Witchfinder General was marketed in this vein once it hit the United States, retitled The Conqueror Worm, which linked it directly to a poem by Poe of the same name. Price and Reeves didn’t get along. When Price arrived on the set, he was informed that ‘I didn’t want you and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you.’ Struggling to cope with the director’s expectations of him, at one stage the actor snapped and pulled rank, stating he’d made 87 films and what had the 24 year old director done? ‘I’ve made three good ones,’ came the retort, which ended the argument. Despite the pair’s mutual and ongoing irritation, Reeves coaxed a brilliant performance from Price, drilling back all his excesses to portray Hopkins as an enigmatic and businesslike man, publicly appearing to believe in his own self-appointed mission while mired in spiralling levels of corruption and cynicism.

In the story, Hopkins makes a mistake when he executes the priest father of Sara (Hilary Dwyer), the fiancé to a young Roundhead officer, Richard (Ian Ogilvy). Sara’s attempts to save her dad (Rupert Davies), which extend to offering sexual favours to Hopkins, come to naught. He’s tortured and killed. A distraught and betrayed Sara finds solace in Richard, who marries her and then goes after both Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Robert Russell). The latter is a more earthly fellow than his boss, and a nasty piece of work, spending his time in local taverns with whores when not torturing poor innocents. Ultimately, Hopkins realises the only way to rid himself of Richard is to implicate him as a witch and subject Sara to more agony in extracting his confession.

Even in its censored form, Witchfinder General makes for strong viewing. My DVD (as part of the coffin-shaped Tigon Collection box set – nice!) comes in two versions, both the original and the extended ‘export cut’. which reinserts some of the grislier scenes excised from the UK censored edit. Whichever version is screened on television (more likely the censored one, as the additional footage is noticeably inferior), the genius of the film in juxtaposing Hopkins’s terrible acts with the beauty of the English countryside is clear. Often, Reeves filmed in locations reputed to be the same as where the actual deeds took place, whereas the moments in which Ogilvy is seen riding at breakneck speed to catch up with Hopkins take on an almost epic quality, only the film’s tiny budget dulling the effect. Ogilvy, incidentally, was a childhood friend of Reeves, and put in a great performance as his character’s world is turned upside down, leaving him a maddened emotional wreck. By the film’s close, he is howling incoherently in frustration and rage, leaving serious doubts over whether he will ever recover mentally.

It’s a great piece of work, one that threatened briefly to transform Reeves into a major league film director before he died the following year from a prescriptions drugs overdose, most likely an accidental one. The film’s reputation has only increased over time. Credited with marking a short-lived revival in the British horror industry, it certainly took an unusual subject and made good use of it. It’s perceived to have sparked a cult of ‘folk horror’, films set in pastoral England and punctuate horrific subjects against a backdrop of largely innocent and idyllic rural life, corrupting it in the process. This found its best expression in Blood on Satan’s Claw, released three years later and an absolutely lurid gem of a picture, but the style continues to this day. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, released in 2013, owes it an enormous debt.

Witchfinder General: ****

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10 Replies to “Witchfinder General (1968)”

  1. I watched this for the first time a few years ago (five, to be precise) and remember enjoying it much more than I expected to. Not sure why I expected to not enjoy it, but anyway. Price is very good in it, I agree, though thinking about it I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen him in anything else to compare.

    Consulting my own review, I think the BBC usually show the export version, low-quality inserts and all. And they last showed it exactly a year ago, at almost the same time! Good old schedulers.

    1. Thanks Bob – I’ve just read your review, very entertaining and thorough as always and I think I kind of understood the point about your expectations, as I was expecting a lurid shocker as opposed to the thoughtful period piece it turned out to be.

      Good to hear the TV schedules are as (un)imaginative as ever!

    1. That’s fair enough Colin. Personally my acid test with films that are recommended but I don’t fancy them is to go with nothing more scientific than the running time – if it’s under 90 minutes long, then I guess the risk to time wasted just seems less serious. Sad I know, but this one would pass that test as it’s only 86 minutes! I’ve never seen, for instance, SALO, because the prospect of watching two hours of sadism and torture however artfully photographed does zero for me. I might be missing a classic, but there it is.

      1. Actually, that’s not a bad system.
        This is a movie I’ve never had the opportunity to see, meaning it never seemed to appear on TV at a convenient time and I didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to track it down on DVD. I’m certainly not ruling it out and I’m sure I’ll get to see it at some point.

      2. I just admit that your and Sergio’s comments put me in mind of the Tigon set generally, one I bought some years ago when I was a bit hard up, probably shouldn’t have in hindsight, and kind of regretted it because though this and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW are acknowledged classics, and both brilliant in their own way, elsewhere it’s a very mixed bag and contains a couple of real clunkers. I’ll never get the time back for seeing THE VIRGIN WITCH, for example, which I know has its fans but to me was simply soft core, and really very poor.

  2. I’m a bit rubbish when it comes to graphic horror (even though I quite like Argento for instance) and though I have this on DVD I have never managed to watch it all the way through. I really will though as it sounds fascinating

    1. Thanks Sergio. I find it a lot more thoughtful than its lurid reputation – not to mention the reputation of Tigon generally, some of the titles on that set are just rubbish – might suggest, and as always it’s great to see Price put in this kind of work. One of my favourite performances from him is THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, for the restraint he shows, but this one’s good also.

      1. I like him a lot on LAST MAN too (but then I’m a fan of the novel and it was all shot in Rome, my home town). I should be more precise – give me a Uniersal horror from the 1930s or a Val lewton production from the 40s and I couldn’t be happier. I have all the Corman Poe films and love Hammer and Amicus for the most part – and just got given THE SKULL on blu-ray in fact – but have little appetite for horror as a genre, per se, for the simple but banal reason that I find them depressing, so I tend to resist even the exceptional titles. Most of my friends adore horror movies whereas if I never see a new Zombie movie ever again I will probably be very happy 🙂 Mind you, I though Darabont’s THE MIST was exceptionally good and I love the humour of RE-ANIMATOR …

      2. The novel I AM LEGEND is brilliant. It’s the only book I’ve ever managed to get through on audio and I loved it. I’ve never seen the Charlton Heston adaptation but the recent one starring Will Smith was a horribly missed opportunity.

        As for the genre in general, the things you mention I’m pretty much in accord with. I try and keep up loosely with horror films, especially those that are feted (I really liked IT FOLLOWS, for instance), but there’s a whole load of crap out there, so much of it panders to younger audiences and serves up uninspired thrills and, worst of all, remakes, and the zombie sub-genre has been bled to death. Also as you say depressing.

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