This is a repost of Adam Fleet’s article.
The year is 1645. The English Civil War rages and as half the country fights, the other half borders on anarchy. Superstition runs rampant in the lawless countryside. Young Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) takes leave to see his girlfriend Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle, the local priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies), in the village of Brandeston. Sensing trouble afoot, Lowes encourages Marshall to marry Sara and take her away from an increasingly volatile local atmosphere. As the war rages on and Marshall and his colleagues are well occupied with the fighting, Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his associate John Stearne (Robert Russell) patrol the East Anglian countryside torturing, molesting and executing alleged witches and Satan worshippers… so long as the price is right.
Michael Reeves’ fourth movie, Witchfinder General hit cinema screens in 1968, less than a year prior to his untimely death of an accidental drug overdose. Known in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm in an attempt to tie-in with Roger Corman’s entirely unrelated Edgar Allen Poe features. While historical accuracy was never Witchfinder General’s foremost aim, Reeves delivered a powerfully misanthropic movie that, nearly fifty years later, still packs a wallop.
Reeves’ original choice for Matthew Hopkins was Donald Pleasence, and while we might pause for a second to ponder the alternate universe in which that stellar casting occurred, Price is perfect in the role. He turns in a steely and menacing performance, arrogant, spiteful and delivered in his iconic vocal tones.
Ogilvy is also great as Richard Marshall, a quintessential goody two-shoes at the beginning of the movie, a stark contrast to his mental unravelling and the deranged madman he has become by the end.
For the thuggish John Stearne, Christian values go out the window (if he ever had any to begin with) as soon as the job is done and he can drink hard and cavort with wenches in taverns. For his part, Hopkins maintains his pious front, staying at least superficially true to his warped values and superiority complex. Although, his unseemly interest in Sara illuminates his true nature.
Aside from being a classic horror movie in its own right, Witchfinder General is a definitive example of the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre – a term popularised by Mark Gatiss in his excellent History of Horror series, but coined by director Piers Haggard in reference to his own movie, the awesomely titled but far less satisfying The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Other notable highlights of the genre include Robin Hardy’s sinister exercise in pagan terror The Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s dense and perplexing A Field in England.
If one wanted to get a bit highbrow and go for a modern interpretation, we might compare Hopkins’ modus operandi to the present-day machinations of the tabloid press. There’s a reason ‘tabloid witch hunt’ has become a phrase after all. With Hopkins stoking up fear and anger in the populace, his true motivation is personal and financial gain. It serves as testimony to the fact that throughout history the power of religion and/or a charismatic leader can rouse a mob toward acts of horror and persecution, regardless of true facts.
Witchfinder General is driven by both protagonists’ warped sense of justice throughout. Be it Hopkins’ moralistic crusade or Marshall’s sworn blood oath, it’s used to excuse their questionable actions, leading us inexorably to the thing that truly sets Witchfinder General apart from many of its contemporaries – the ending. It is so gobsmacking, it is impossible to ignore. (So, consider this fair spoiler warning to skip the next paragraph if you have not seen the movie).
Witchfinder General has one of the greatest endings of all time. Certainly, it is one of the bleakest as Marshall’s hatred dictates his final confrontation with Matthew Hopkins. As the hero of good standing and solid integrity, we expect Marshall to show mercy, despite what he has been through. But he is consumed, utterly, by vengeance. As Sara’s screams echo over the end credits, goodness does not win out. Instead, humanity’s darkest motivations take centre stage and we realise there is no redemption for any of these characters. It is a stunning end to a movie that is already treading in dark territory. The impact on an audience seeing this for the first time in 1968 was surely intense, as it has lost none of its power today.
Shockingly violent for its time, Witchfinder General alarmed both the BBFC and critics alike, but audiences responded to its mean streak and the movie performed well. Witchfinder General remains disturbingly grisly, with effectively nasty interrogation scenes and executions. Folks are gouged and stabbed and burnt to a crisp. Accused of sadism and exploitation on release, in many respects Witchfinder General’s strength is in its unremitting dedication to sweet, sweet nihilism. It is great because it is horrible. It hates everything. It hates you. It is a movie that revels in its own cynicism.
As far as its cultural impact goes, as is often the case, the horror genre finds itself resonating in the world of classic heavy metal. Witchfinder General inspired the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) act of the same name (bawdy, exploitative album covers included), while Cathedral’s thundering doom metal opus, “Hopkins (The Witchfinder General)”, replete with marvellously eccentric video, is arguably the greatest British horror-inspired heavy metal rager of all time (although Iron Maiden’s anthemic “The Wicker Man” ditty might have a bone to pick on that score).
As with all classics, talk of a remake has reared its ugly head, although Witchfinder at least has the intriguing prospect of Nicholas Winding Refn flirting with its production. And while it does indeed look like ripe material for a genre fiend such as Refn, it’s still hard to see what a remake could really bring to the table. With a dark sensibility that was ahead of its time, and a twisted refusal to redeem any character, Witchfinder General more than earned its place at the table of horror classics, and still stands tall today.