Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Robert Russell, Hilary Dwyer
Directed by: Michael Reeves
Rolling hills and green fields, woolly sheep and country lanes; a hastily assembled gallows and a wailing witch to hang from it. Welcome to Merrie England, circa 1645.
The country is in the grip of the Civil War and has become a lawless and turbulent place, battle scarred and ravaged, as neighbours turn against each other and families divide. What better hunting ground for an ambitious and zealous Parliamentarian, who uses the troubled times as an excuse to make money by torturing innocent women in the name of God? Stand accused Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, a 'lawyer' whose unpleasant job it is to ride around the East Anglian countryside in search of men and women bearing the devil's mark, to force them to confess to consorting with the devil and then to hang them - all for a fat fee, of course. Nice.
Well actually, not nice at all. The stark imagery of the titles gives us a clue as to what we're letting ourselves in for. Unremittingly and unflinchingly grim and raw, Witchfinder General is not your standard Hammer Horror fare (in fact it's not actually a Hammer film at all). Singularly lacking in haunted castles, creepy forests and scary pointy teeth, the film may display the usual 1960s obsession with Technicolor tits and ass at inappropriate moments, but otherwise Witchfinder General is surprisingly unsensationalist, especially given its potentially titillating subject matter. And this is almost entirely due to the cold, steely, enigmatic presence of the marvellous Vincent Price.
Matthew Hopkins is one of Price's most compelling and terrible roles - and I'm talking terrible in the Old Testament sense here. 'Look for the devil's mark upon him,' he mutters matter of factly, in those inimitable clipped tones that send instant shivers down the spine of any self respecting fan of Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden or indeed Michael Jackson. In the end, the Witchfinder General is just doing his job, and his job is torture and death.
From the start, the didactic voiceover makes it clear as to whose side we're supposed to be on, and it ain't Matthew Hopkins'. Yet while the film hardly offers a nuanced, multi-faceted portrayal of the cruel and sadistic Witchfinder, it nevertheless raises interesting questions as to the motivation behind his deeds. Whilst it's clear that his sidekick, the beer swilling, womanising torturer John Stearne (Robert Russell), takes a sick delight in plying his trade, in Hopkins' case we're not so sure.
'Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do,' he observes drily, and this is certainly true in his own case. Is it genuine Puritan zeal, a burning desire to do the Lord's work, that causes him to scour the land for unclean souls? Or has he been twisted by a perverse desire to see naked young women tortured and killed? Or is he simply in it for the money, which would explain why he sometimes looks so bored with the whole tedious witchpricking, finger breaking, ducking stool business.
A cold and calculating pragmatist, Hopkins has long ago realised that his post offers him a passport to do whatever he likes. What is it they say about power? Ah yes, it corrupts. Anyone who stands in his way can conveniently be denounced as a witch. And what do we do with witches? We torture them until they confess. And if they won't confess, they're subjected to 'due process of law', i.e. they're thrown into the village pond. If they float, they're clearly a witch and must be hanged. If they sink, well, my mistake, they obviously weren''t a witch after all. They're dead, like, but better safe than sorry.
Of course there are no real witches in Witchfinder General, no demons, devils or any other traces of the supernatural or spiritual worlds. The evil of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne is not spawned by Satan; it's an entirely human evil, which spreads like a virus across the country, infecting all who come into contact with it. Good men like our posturing but pure-hearted hero Richard (Ian Ogilvy) are driven mad by it; good women like our practical and resourceful heroine Sarah (Hilary Dwyer) are destroyed by it. The fact that the film is based on real historical events only serves to make it all the more chilling.
Considered shockingly violent and salacious when it was first released (the DVD includes several 'explicit' (for which read gruesome and grainy) scenes which were edited out of the original version), Witchfinder General still makes for uncomfortable viewing in places. And despite an over usage of dodgy day for night shots and the odd character actor who appears to have escaped from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the film still stands up well today.
With its dark plot and relentless focus on cruelty and brutality, its bleak conclusion and general sense of futility in the face of encroaching evil, it offers a stark and unpleasant reflection of society that still resonates powerfully in the 21st century. Where true evil exists, there can be no happy endings, and from The Wicker Man to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, any film with a nihilistic, anti-Hollywood ending has to pay tribute to Michael Reeves' landmark movie.
Throw in a triumphantly terrifying score (by the same guy
who wrote the music for Monty Python and the Holy Grail,
spookily enough), and a star turn from one of horror cinema's
most revered artists, and you have a genuine, timeless cult
classic. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Witchfinder