WITCHFINDER GENERAL. (1968) BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY RONALD BASSETT. PRODUCTION COMPANIES: TIGON BRITISH FILM PRODUCTIONS AND AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL PICTURES. DIRECTED BY MICHAEL REEVES.
STARRING VINCENT PRICE, IAN OGILVY, ROBERT RUSSELL, RUPERT DAVIES, PATRICK WYMARK AND HILARY DWYER.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is a perfect film. A perfect film. Don’t try to argue with me on this one, haha. Alongside THE WICKER MAN (1973) and THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971), it’s probably the best British horror film of all time. I love watching it on BBC2 late on Halloween night or the night before or after. I love watching it anytime, to tell you the truth.
It makes every fibre of my being literally ache with longing for an era of superb British film-making that ended before I was born. THE WICKER MAN has the same effect on me, especially the bit where the giant head drops off into the sea while a blazing sunset paints the sky blood-red and the haunting music that accompanies the end credits gets into its stride. I’m getting shivers just thinking about it. Better move onto THE WITCHFINDER before I get too emotional.
There are so many things that make this film both memorable and, as I may have mentioned earlier, perfect. The tragic death by accidental overdose of its brilliant young director just a few months after the film’s release, for one thing. The accusations of tasteless violence and a disgusting level of sadism levelled towards the film upon its arrival into the public eye, for another.
Another reason for the film’s memorability is Vincent Price’s brilliant performance as Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder, possibly the legendary horror icon’s most evil and wonderfully-played character ever. He plays the Witchfinder with none of his usual flamboyant campiness, but instead with nuanced cruelty and sinister subtlety.
There’s also the admirable debut performance of the beautiful Hilary Dwyer as Sara Lowes, and, of course, the fact that Ian Ogilvy, surely the handsomest man in England in his day, is playing the romantic lead, and with as much swash ‘n’ buckle as you could ever reasonably hope for…
The year is 1645. The English Civil War (1642-1651), Roundheads or Parliamentarians on one side and Cavaliers or Royalists on the other, is currently tearing the country apart.
Matthew Hopkins is riding around East Anglia with his odious sidekick John Stearne in tow. What are they up to? In the words of indie band BLOC PARTY, the nasty pair are hunting for witches… See what I did there?
Anyway, with no real mandate from government, as far as I know, or at least not much of a one, they hang and burn so-called witches, both male and female, after first torturing them horribly in order to extract ‘confessions’ from the poor souls.
The scenes of torture and execution in the film are chillingly realistic, especially Hopkins’s ‘revolutionary’ ‘new’ method of burning ‘witches,’ which is just awful to watch. I meaning, burning someone is quite bad enough in the first place without doing it this way to boot. Being pricked with a knife all over your body in the hideously painful search for ‘the Devil’s mark’ is assuredly no picnic either.
You’d have to be a particular kind of sadist to enjoy doing what Hopkins and Stearne are doing. I think they just enjoy the power it gives them, being able to beat up defenceless old men and women and rape any choice females unlucky enough to fall into their grubby hands. At the heart of it, they’re probably cowards, as most bullies seem to be, and would probably snivel and beg cravenly for their own lives if the shoe were on the other foot.
Sara’s elderly uncle, John Lowes, the priest or vicar of the pretty, picturesque little Brandeston village in Suffolk, is one of Hopkins’s victims. So too is the gorgeous young Sara, as the evil Hopkins forces her to submit to sex with him on the off-chance that he might spare her uncle. The dirty rotten liar…!
Ian ‘Handsome’ Ogilvy is Sara’s Roundhead lover (well, Roundhead in the sense that he’s a soldier, anyway; I haven’t examined his particulars, more’s the pity…!), Richard Marshall, and he takes mighty umbrage at the rape of his buxom fiancée by both Hopkins and his repulsive lackey Stearne. He vows revenge against the foul pair. They’re surely in for it now, folks…
‘Handsome’ spends a lot of the film riding. I wasn’t actually referring to his swoonsome sex scene with the lovely Sara, but since you mention it…! No, I mean riding horses, all the livelong day in search of Hopkins and Stearne, past some of the most glorious autumnal scenery ever committed to celluloid. Does he catch up with the noxious pair and introduce ’em both to The Fist Of Justice and The Riding-Boot Of Retribution And Vengeance? Now, you know I can’t tell you that, you naughty lot…
I kind of feel about Richard Marshall, aside from his handsomeness, that it’s not really Sara’s being raped he’s angry about and sorry for, but rather that Hopkins and Stearne have dared to defile what is his, what he owns, what belongs to him.
Even when Sara is being tortured in the castle by the gruesome pair, Richard has the power to stop the torture by himself spouting a phoney confession. He doesn’t, though, because Sara’s pain means less to him than revenging himself violently on the vile Witchfinder and his equally vicious lackey. His male pride won’t allow him to submit to Hopkins and Stearne or beg them for mercy, even if Sara has to suffer all the more for it.
By the way, the excellent character actor Patrick Wymark has a cameo role in the film as Oliver Cromwell, who led the Parliamentarians against King Charles the First during the English Civil War.
Wymark has also had prominent roles in Amicus’s THE SKULL (1965), co-starring alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and that other benchmark in English folk horror which we mentioned earlier, THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971).
Anyway, roll on next Halloween, which will probably be the next time I get to watch this unmatchable British folk horror film on BBC2 late at night, which is surely the best way of all to view it. Luckily, I have it on DVD though, so I can at least watch it that way as often as I like.
So remember, don’t be alarmed if you hear blood-curdling screams and the sounds of unimaginable suffering and hell-on-earth issuing spookily from behind my closed doors this winter, folks. It’s only The Witchfinder…
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.