Starring-Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer
Scott’s Review #904
Reviewed May 31, 2019
Witchfinder General (1968) is a macabre horror film that provides an enormous atmosphere amid a gruesome story centering around the theme of witch-hunting. By the late 1960’s violence and bloodletting in cinema had become more lenient and acceptable so the film takes full advantage of the timing with an unusual amount of torture, cruelty, and brutality. The mid-seventeenth century English period is highly effective as is the ghastly religious angle, making for effective film making.
Vincent Price is delicious in any film he appears in, having amassed over one-hundred cinematic credits alone, to say nothing of his television appearances. Practically trademarking his over-the-top comic wittiness and campy performances, his role in Witchfinder General may be his best yet as he plays the character straight and deadly serious. This succeeds in making his character chilling and maybe the best role of his career despite numerous disputes with the director, Michael Reeves, over motivation.
During the English Civil War, Mathew Hopkins (Price) takes advantage of the unrest in the land, profiting from witch-hunting. He travels from town to town accusing the unfortunate of witchcraft until they are mercilessly executed after which he is paid handsomely. Matthew is assisted in the accusations and torments by John Stearne (Robert Russell) a man his equal in brutality. The knowledge that these two men were real-life historic figures makes the action even more difficult to watch.
When he arrests and tortures Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), Lowes’s niece’s fiancé (Ian Ogilvy) decides to put an end to Hopkins’s sleazy practices and goes on a quest to seek vengeance. The mixture of a romantic love story as Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and Sara (Hilary Dwyer) marry and a revenge tale as Marshall vows to destroy Hopkins is a nice combination as are the numerous outdoor scenes. Witchfinder General has much going on and the pieces all come together.
The most horrific moments of the film come during the death scenes as the victims, who logical viewers can ascertain are innocent. The characters are merely perceived as peculiar, therefore deemed to be up to witchcraft, and do not stand much of a chance despite their endless pleas and cries. Before they are murdered they are typically tortured until they ultimately confess to crimes out of desperation and perceived relief. The common mode of death is either hanging or burning to death.
In one sickening scene, victims are assumed to be witches if they can swim and then are subsequently burned at the stake; if they drown they are innocent, but of course die anyway. One unfortunate victim has her hands and legs bound and obviously drowns, followed by one of the witch hunters profess how her death was unfortunate because she was innocent all along.
In horror films, the most frightening situations are the ones that can conceivably occur in real-life whether it be a home-invasion, a psycho with a knife, or burning at the stake in the 1600s. The fact that witch-hunting did happen is shocking and resoundingly makes Witchfinder General creepier especially given that most scenes take place in the daytime. Anyone can create a studio monster, but the realism of the events is the key to the film’s power.
As an aside, while watching the film I was keen to keep in mind how many countries still treat certain classes and groups of people differently, or even oppress them in the name of God. Food for thought and an additional component that makes Witchfinder General relevant.
The story and the screenplay are not brilliant, nor do they necessarily need to be given the treasures existing among the elements. The writing is your basic villains getting their comeuppance with a love story thrown in- standard fare and adequate. While pointing out some negatives is “Witchfinder General” the best title that Reeves could come up with, or anyone else for that matter? The title does not exactly roll off the tongue nor does the renamed United States release, The Conqueror Worm sound much better.
Witchfinder General (1968) is not an easy watch and the faint of heart may want to avoid this one, but the realism and the rich atmosphere make it a success. The lit candles, an old castle, potent red and blue costumes, and one of the greatest horror legends of all time make this a must-watch among horror fans.