Synopsis: As superstition and fear sweep the Middle Ages, an educated rogue named Hopkins (Vincent Price) wanders from town to town proclaiming to be an official witch finder. Town leaders play him to accuse and then execute – usually innocent – suspects. But when a brave soldier returns home to find his sweetheart on the rack, ready to burn, Hopkins realizes he may have whacked his last witch!
Witchfinder General 7.25
eyelights: Ian Ogilvie. Vincent Price. its horrifying witch hunts.
eyesores: its terrible wigs and beards. its uneasy editing. its fake blood.
“I will find out the truth for you, have no fear.”
Imagine living in an era when so-called “justice” was doled out willy-nilly and you had no recourse whatsoever. Though our various justice systems are flawed, our times aren’t nearly as dire as they’ve once been. Granted, it’s hardly perfect. Granted, we need to make improvements.
But we’re a far cry from the Middle Ages.
‘Witchfinder General’, however, isn’t. Set in 1645, it offers a fictional take on Matthew Hopkins, an English lawyer who branded himself a witch hunter and terrorized the countryside during the English Civil War. Imbued with legal powers, he intimidated, tortured and murdered hundreds.
This 1968 motion picture is an American International Pictures and Tigon British Film co-production starring Vincent Price. Though it gained popularity much after its original release, it was originally notorious for the brutality it offered its audiences, forcing its censorship twice.
Shot on location in various rural areas in England, it follows a young soldier’s quest for revenge after his fiancé’s life is devastated by Hopkins’ cruel witch hunts. It also follows Hopkins’ travails as he and his assistant, John, brutalize their victims into confessing to being devil worshippers.
It’s the third and last motion picture by Michael Reeves, an up-and-coming young director whose career was upended when he died of a drug overdose not a year later. Though his first two films apparently weren’t at all stellar, he’s recognized by some critics as a very talented filmmaker.
Unfortunately, he had a strained relationship with his star: his first choice had been Donald Pleasance in the role of Hopkins, but AIP helped to finance the film on condition that their contracted actor Vincent Price take the lead. This upset Reeves greatly and he purposely antagonized the thespian.
However, in some ways this backfired because the level of criticism that Price endured forced him to reconsider much of the work he was doing, the result being a more meticulous approach than he’d been known for in recent years. It also infused his performance with a perfectly appropriate edge.
Ian Ogilvie, a staple of Reeves’ films thus far, played Price’s counterpart in the role of the heroic Richard, a farmer-turned-soldier. Ogilvie is handsome, congenial, and capable; he’s a strong lead who actually enables Richard to stand tall as a counterpoint to Price’s Hopkins. That’s certainly no mean feat.
Beyond the cast, however, the most memorable aspect of the picture is the violence, which is dished out by Hopkins and John. Though it sometimes looks fake, no small part due to the noticeably fake blood, the cruelty inflicted upon the pair’s victims is raw, savage and utterly unflinching.
In concert with their obvious satisfaction at torturing people, as evidenced by the insipid justifications they make, these scenes pack quite a punch. Who could forget the drowning in the pond, as a precursor to hanging, or the woman strapped to a ladder and then lowered gradually into a bonfire?
Admittedly, witch hunts were notoriously brutal and unforgiving, but we’re talking about a motion picture from 1968, when such violence was still frequently off-screen or toned down for censors. By today’s standards, the violence pales in comparison, but somehow it’s no less harrowing to watch.
In fact, the picture is so stunningly vicious that it bookends the picture with two equally traumatic sequences: one in which a woman is dragged screaming through a village by a mob, to be hung to death, and another that finds two of our main characters losing their minds in the face of Hopkins’ atrocities.
The picture isn’t as wrenching throughout, but a pall does cover it due to its proven sadism. Anything could happen. It doesn’t so much put the audience on edge as leave it impotent, knowing that not only can it do nothing but that its main characters can’t either; Hopkins is all-powerful.
Such was the conundrum faced by people in that era: if accused of witchcraft, there was no escape – as any attempt to contradict the investigator could be viewed as the work of the devil. You were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t; you could pretty much expect torture and permanent slander.
With its morally flexible characters, ‘Witchfinder General’ illustrates this reality relatively well. It also immerses its audience in the era thanks to the quality of the production (aside for the crap wigs). Though it’s not a masterpiece, it succeeds in ways that its more exploitative peers don’t.
As a horror film, however, it misses its mark; it’s far more disturbing than scary. And though Price’s portrayal of Hopkins is realistic and sinister enough, he never takes on the grandeur of the greatest screen villains. In the end, we’re grateful that we didn’t have to live in that time and place.
But there’s no satisfaction: in ‘Witchfinder General’, nobody wins.
Date of viewing: March 15, 2017