WitchfinderGeneralThis 1968 gut-wrencher was the final film of Britain’s late Michael Reeves, and one of the highlights of 1960s British horror cinema.  It remains a uniquely tough, uncompromising film, and contains perhaps the best-ever performance by the late Vincent Price.

Michael Reeves was just 23 years old when he made the historical horror fest MATTHEW HOPKINS WITCHFINDER GENERAL, a.k.a. THE CONQUERER WORM, a.k.a. WITCHFINDER GENERAL.  Co-financed by American International Pictures, who where responsible for the presence of their house star Vincent Price in the title role, it was easily the finest of Reeves’ three features (the others being THE SHE BEAST from 1965 and THE SORCERERS from 1967).  It also marked a turning point in British cinema, which following its release turned out an increasing number of taboo-shattering works like GET CARTER, PERFORMANCE, THE DEVILS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, all a far cry from the likes of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.  Unfortunately Michael Reeves died of a barbiturate overdose in 1969.

The extreme violence of WITCHFINDER GENERAL was controversial for its time, and although the film was released more-or-less intact by British censors, it was heavily cut for its initial US release.  As for the film’s numerous home video incarnations, the most complete version can be found on MGM’s 2007 DVD release.

The year is 1645 and England is gripped by civil war.  Matthew Hopkins is a self-ordained attorney who travels from town to town in an effort to ferret out witches through gruesome “examinations”.  He’s paid handsomely for these sessions, of course, and always makes sure to give his suspects a full dose of torture.

Enter Richard Marshall, a Cromwellian soldier in love with the pretty Sara.  Hopkins enters their town and immediately sets his sights on Sara, who ends up violated at the hands of Hopkins’ psychotic assistant Stearne.  Sara, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones: Several other town citizens are accused of witchcraft, including a local priest, and all lose their lives at the hands of Hopkins, who then departs for another town.

Richard becomes determined to track down Hopkins and make him pay for his transgressions.  But he’ll have to stand in line, as Stearne becomes equally disenchanted with his employer after Hopkins leaves him to be manhandled by an invading army.  A plague of violence, fostered by Hopkins, spreads across the land, and is set to engulf Hopkins himself along with everyone around him.

For unadorned brutality this film, nearly forty years after its inception, has few rivals.  It contains many graphic torture sequences crafted with a minimum of cutaways; Michael Reeves ensures that we get all the gory details, with a particular emphasis on pain.  The victims here both male and female scream for all they’re worth upon getting stabbed, drowned or beaten, which causes great discomfort in the viewer (as it should).  While some clunky elements (such as a noisy, over-insistent score) common to traditional British genre fare remain, the film is largely unique in its cold, almost clinical approach to violence.

The point seems to be to demonstrate how in the dark days of the Seventeenth Century bloodlust spread like a contagion, engulfing the sadistic Matthew Hopkins and the film’s square-jawed hero in one of the most vicious climaxes you’re ever likely to experience.  WITCHFINDER GENERAL is less a pure horror film than a violent action drama—even, as has been repeatedly stressed by various commentators, a western.  But as such it’s more in line with the revisionist westerns of the seventies (like DIRTY LITTLE BILLY, THE HUNTING PARTY and SOLDIER BLUE), which stressed moral ambiguity over conventional heroism.

One of the film’s finest elements in my view is Vincent Price in the title role, who amply demonstrates why he was a horror icon.  There’s a debate among WITCHFINDER fans as to whether Price, traditionally known for campy roles in grade-B fare like THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHILBES and the original FLY, hurts or harms this heavily naturalistic film.  I say he’s an invaluable asset whose sheer presence all-but burns a hole in the celluloid.

Vital Statistics

Tigon International

Director: Michael Reeves
Producers: Louis M. Heyward, Philip Waddilove, Arnold Miller
Screenplay: Michael Reeves, Louis M. Heyward, Tom Baker
Cinematography: Johnny Coquillon
Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Oglivy, Rupert Davies, Wilfrid Brambell, Patrick Wymark, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Michael Beint, John Trenaman, Godfrey James, Tony Selby, Nicky Henson, Bill Maxwell, Paul Ferris, Maggie Kimberly