England is in civil war as the Royalists battle Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads for control. This conflict distracts people from rational thought and allows unscrupulous men to gain power by exploiting village superstitions. One of these men is Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), who tours the land offering his services as a persecutor of witches. Aided by his sadistic accomplice John Stearne (Robert Russell), he travels from town to town and wrenches confessions from "witches" in order to line his pockets. When Hopkins persecutes a priest (Rupert Davies), he incurs the wrath of Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who is engaged to the priest's niece. Risking treason by leaving his military duties, Marshall relentlessly pursues the evil Hopkins and his minion Stearne.
Spoilers follow ...
- Witchfinder General review by NP
(0) of (0) members found this review helpful.
You rated this film: 4
Opening with a very brutal, pre-credits hanging, ‘Witchfinder General’ goes on to feature an exceptional performance from Vincent Price, who despite a clash with Director Michael Reeves (Reeves declined to greet the actor at the airport on his arrival and made it abundantly clear he was not happy with his casting), names this as one of his favourite performances. It is easy to see why – he is given Matthew Hopkins, a Witchfinder steeped in hypocrisy, cruelty and genuine sin. Despite Price’s tendency to play extravagant characters, he invests Hopkins with a certain restraint, and is therefore extremely powerful: it is an excellent performance. Hopkins was a real life lawyer who, in 1644 elevated himself to witch-hunter, and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 300 in the following two years.
There is a lot of screaming in this film. Indeed, even as the end credits roll, the heartfelt cries of Sara (Hilary Dwyer) threaten to drown out the music before they finally fade away. Such outbursts are entirely warranted, given the saturation of lies and duplicity that make the law by which normal people are expected to live their lives.
Michael Reeves died one year after this film’s release, aged only 25, his potential as a director and writer barely tapped. His work on ‘Witchfinder General’ is unstinting in its depiction of vile human behaviour and gleeful cruelty, the camera never in any hurry to move away from scenes of graphic violence and barbarism, not least from Hopkins, who misuses the word of God entirely for his own end. Hopkins dies violently, but not as graphically as he deserves, hacked to death by a crazed Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), whose wife Sara has suffered innumerable terrible acts of maltreatment.
Whilst watching my DVD version of this film, there are many brief moments where the picture quality deteriorates noticeably – it suddenly struck me that these are scenes cut from the previous/initial release for reasons of bloodshed. Even with such pruning, the film provoked much outrage when it premiered. Despite this – or probably because of it – it was a success, even now held up as a cult classic. And so it should be. The way of life is presented in a way that causes the viewer to watch from behind their hands even today, and every member of the impressive cast is terrific, giving full-blooded, forceful performances. Donald Pleasance, Reeves’ original choice for Hopkins, would have provided his own brand of excellence, but this is probably Vincent Price’s finest hour – which is quite something for so prolific a performer.