Made in 1968, this is the third film by precocious director Michael Reeves. A historical film (regarded as a part of the Horror genre, although not necessarily a view shared by the director), it is based loosely on a novel by Ronald Bassett about Matthew Hopkins, the infamous and self-proclaimed 'Witchfinder General'. It starred Vincent Price in the title role of Hopkins, and Ian Ogilvy (who also played television's The Saint after Roger Moore toddled off for bigger roles).
The film follows a somewhat predictable and now hackneyed storyline pattern and has often been compared to the 'Western' genre in terms of plot progression. It follows a fairly linear 'rape/revenge' type story that has been characterised by many horror films since and to the modern viewer may not appear particularly cutting-edge. However, one should not forget that the film was made in 1968, almost 40 years ago at a time when horror was only just beginning to push the boundaries of taste. The film has also often been mistakenly thought of as a 'Hammer Horror', primarily due to the presence of Vincent Price and a relative low-budget (it was shot for just £82,000). However, Witchfinder General succeeds in transcending any such labelling due to a direction that turns an otherwise ordinary plot into a disturbing and tense spectacle that avoids falling into the cliché traps the Hammer Horrors cultivated.
From the start the viewer is made to feel uncomfortable and to an extent placed in awe with an opening scene of a woman dragged across windswept, inhospitable English countryside to a makeshift gallows. The absence of music at this point heightens the affecting qualities. This scene sets the tone for the entire film which continues relentlessly with a realism that is both disturbing and compulsive. We follow Matthew Hopkins and his assistant as they travel from village to village, capitalising on the fear and ignorance of the locals who are more than ready to swallow the idea of witches ruining their crops as an easy scapegoat. The English Civil War is also raging elsewhere in the country and thus, 'law and order' (such as it would have been to begin with) has all but broken down, allowing Hopkins to exploit the power vacuum that has been left.
Hopkins arrives at a village where he is told the local clergyman has been practising witchcraft, so he inevitably proceeds to torture and eventually kill him. However, before doing so he blackmails the clergyman's ward into giving him sexual favours. This woman is the sweetheart of a Roundhead soldier, Richard Marshall (played by Ogilvy) who is portrayed as a valiant and thoroughly decent fellow (hence the foil to Price's inhuman Witchfinder). Upon his return, the Roundhead swears vengeance for the defiling of his sweetheart and murder of the clergyman and sets off for revenge, eventually attaining it at the very end of the film, in what is a nevertheless unsettling end as Marshall like Hopkins lustfully debases himself into violence. In the meantime however, we are "treated" to various acts of barbarity by Hopkins, such as an instance where he tries out a new method for killing witches involving a wooden scaffold and a burning pyre.
Of particular note is the film's use of landscape. Filmed in Norfolk and Suffolk, the green but cold and passive countryside offers an emotionless backdrop to the actions that take place. This further adds to the lawless feel of the world; for the most part Hopkins can get away with his cruelty in a place where any higher meaning has disappeared and even nature is ambivalent. In this sense the film is highly nihilistic. But hey, let's not get pretentious....
Reeves' direction plays a huge role in creating the unsettling atmosphere. For example, often Hopkins is filmed with the camera looking up at him whereas Ogilvy is filmed with the camera looking down. Most obviously this creates the subtle effect of Hopkins dominating whilst Ogilvy plays the part of the little man battling against forces greater and more powerful than himself (not just Hopkins, but his obligations as a soldier, the mass mentality of villagers, etc).
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is the performance of Vincent Price. Price is mainly known for his less than subtle performances in various horror films, in particular several movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Reeves had originally wanted Donald Pleasence (most famous for his Bond villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld) for the part of Matthew Hopkins but the American studio was keen to push Vincent Price for the role in order to capitalise on his fame in the Poe roles. Indeed, the American release of Witchfinder General was under a different name, "The Conqueror Worm", the name of a Poe short story and a further attempt to increase saleability to an American audience endeared to both Price and their foremost horror writer. It is rumoured that Reeves’ reluctance to cast Price carried on into the filming as the pair did not have the warmest of professional relationships. But this is clearly to the viewer's advantage as the strained relationship carries into the film itself, creating a tension that keeps things tittering on the brink. One source of possible disagreement or argument between Reeves and Price may have been Reeves insistence that Price play the role "straight" - there was no place in Reeves' idea of Hopkins for campness or hyperbole. One imagines some of the early takes would make amusing viewing of Price putting on an almost Carry-On style performance with Reeves then cutting him down for it. Regardless though, Price puts in a performance stripped bare of humanist tendencies and as a result we're left with perhaps his most chilling performance.
The essence and power of the film can perhaps be best expressed through the comments the playwright Alan Bennett made about it and Reeves’ subsequent response. Bennett expressed a preference for horror films punctuated by ‘belly laughs’ and proceeded to state there are no laughs in Witchfinder General.
It is the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen. It was a degrading experience by which I mean it made me feel dirty. Reeves’ response was scathing:
Surely the most immoral thing in any form of entertainment is the conditioning of the audience to accept and enjoy violence…To sit back in one’s cinema seat and have a good giggle between Mr. Bennett’s bouts of ‘healthy’ violence, as he so strangely advocates, is surely immoral to the extent of criminality. Violence is horrible, degrading and sordid. Insofar as one is going to show it on the screen at all, it should be presented as such – and the more people it shocks into sickened recognition of these facts the better. I wish I could have witnessed Mr. Bennett frantically attempting to wash away the ‘dirty’ feeling my film gave him. It would have been proof of the fact that ‘Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General’ works as intended.
These issues are as important in cinema today as they were forty years ago. There is little doubt of the shocking qualities of Witchfinder General and nothing juvenile
about the violence it portrays. If you are like me, you will come away with some questions
to ask yourself.
It should perhaps also be noted that not only was this Reeves third film (the previous being Il Lago di Satana and The Sorcerers), it was also his last. He died at the age of 25 having consumed more barbiturates and alcohol than his body could deal with. He was 24 when he directed Witchfinder General. To have made a film of such maturity and intelligence at such an age is quite staggering. It is impossible (and pointless) to ask whether he would have made anything of the same standard if he had lived. Better just to be glad he made this one and in the process made a small but significant effect on the future of cinema and the violence it contains.