Witchfinder General (1968) directed by Michael Reeves
What’s it about?
It is the year 1645 and England is in the grip of a civil war between King Charles’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. Ian Ogilvy plays a young soldier named Richard Marshall, serving under the latter faction, who is granted 2 days of leave to visit his lover Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) who lives with her priest uncle John (Rupert Davies) in the village of Brandeston. Once there, he is given permission by John to marry Sara - a fact that fills him with joy. However, that night Sara confides in him that her uncle is being accused of witchcraft by some of the villagers.
When it’s time for Richard to go ride back to rejoin his regiment he passes Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) - who tells him that he is a lawyer heading to Brandeston to try someone who “is not who he claims to be” - and his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell). However, Hopkins is, in fact, a “witchfinder”, and Stearne a ruffian who uses brutal methods to extract confessions from those who he puts on trial. They are out to get John, and promptly start applying their sadistic methods on him to extract a confession. In her desperation to save her uncle, Sara seduces Hopkins into bedding her in exchange for them stopping the torture and keeping him locked up instead.
While Hopkins agrees to go along with this, Stearne soon finds out that they are sleeping together. In order to save face, Hopkins changes his mind and has John face “trial by drowning”. When the latter attempts to swim he is decreed guilty and is subsequently hanged as a witch. Richard overhears about the trial in Brandeston while purchasing some horses for the cavalry, so he decides to break rank and ride to the scene. When he finds out about Hopkins’s murder of John and sexual exploitation of Sara, he swears an oath to bring justice by putting him before the Almighty via some keen use of the sword in his hand.
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Why is it significant?
Witchfinder General was a co-production between the British company Tigon Productions and American International Pictures. It was also released under the title The Conqueror Worm. It is based on a novel by Ronald Bassett that crafted a fictional story around the real-life 17th century witch-hunting exploits of Matthew Hopkins. It’s one of those films that was condemned by many critics at the time due to its gruesome violence, despite the fact that the UK censorship board (the BBFC) imposed a number of cuts to its original theatrical release.
However, in later years it has come to be held in high regard as one of a slew of British “folk horror” classics alongside such contemporaries as Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man. Its cult reputation was also cemented by the fact it was the final film directed by Michael Reeves before his untimely death by accidental overdose at the age of 25.
It has retained its popularity from one generation of horror buffs to another thanks to numerous TV showings and home viewing releases. The original cuts for violence have been restored for most of the film’s DVD and Blu Ray releases in the UK.
How does it hold up?
In retrospect Witchfinder General is a somewhat overrated film; while at times director Michael Reeves displayed a lot of promise here (in particular for his few years on this Earth) many other scenes unfold in a surprisingly sluggish and perfunctory manner.
It’s an interesting film for its twisting of the horror genre together with what amounts to a transplanted spaghetti western, and coming out with something new. Many details bear an uncanny resemblance to the Sergio Leone masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West from the same year, albeit presented with a markedly different feel and effect. We get a cold-hearted villain who is given a mandate to go from settlement to settlement killing beloved family members, and we get a revenge-minded hero who has been left bereaved by his exploits.
Even some of the smaller details feel similar to Leone’s opus. Examples include a woman agreeing to give herself carnally to the villain in an attempt to reach an “end that justifies the means”, and our hero being so strong in his vows that he insists that he - and he alone - has the right to take the villain’s life. There are also some more generic Western tropes such as gunfights (with flintlock pistol), long journeys on horseback and a tavern fight.
The horror comes not only from the prolonged scenes of people suffering at the hands of violent acts but also from the viewer witnessing those onscreen being alarmingly complicit in these very brutalities. We see Stearne’s cathartic relish in the pain he inflicts and his emotional deadness to his victims’ cries. Later on, when a young woman accused of witchcraft is lowered onto a bonfire, the initially shocked reaction shots of the other villagers cut away to a scene of children baking potatoes in the embers; violence has become a routine part of their cycle of life.
The film’s end presents us with an act of violence so sustained by the fuel of anger that any satisfaction is nullified and the condemnation of the villainy of the onscreen characters is turned right back at the viewer; YOU TOO are complicit in humanity’s baying for blood. It is a polar opposite to the Hammer horror films of the 1960s up to this point, where there is a blatant sense of fantastical artifice to act as a barrier to keep the viewer from seeing it as more than mere entertainment. Here, most of the action is shot on location, and when sets are used they are lit and photographed in a naturalistic manner.
A well-made if slightly padded film
Unfortunately, even at a modest length of around 86 minutes, Witchfinder General does feel slow and padded at times. The various machinations and goings-on leading up to John Lowes’s demise feel a bit too laborious and cluttered. There are too many lengthy montages of characters riding horses through glens that feel like time-fillers.
In general, however, the sense of tension is well-orchestrated with great use of back-and-forth edits. Long and low angle shots are also used expertly, displaying the characters carefully juxtaposed with nature in the form of grass heads, rivers and trees. This conveys how the particular brand of villainy-by-complicity here is part of nature itself - human nature. The music by Paul Ferris is also notable as it segues from the pastoral serenity of rural life to the ominous blare that accompanies Hopkins’s atrocities.
The main features that hold Witchfinder General together are the two lead performances. Vincent Price was ordered a keep a lid on his trademark hamming by Reeves (a request that caused some on-set tension between the two) and ended up bringing a palpable sense of dead-eyed presence to his role. Ian Ogilvy isn’t in the same league but still makes for a likeable audience identification figure, a man at the crossroads of youthful exuberance and a sense of adult nobility - a living, breathing point where hotheadedness and righteousness intertwine.
Had Reeves lived on he would have undoubtedly made something very special indeed after this. As it is, we still have some strong inklings of his talent via this film and its predecessor, The Sorcerers.
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Michael Reeves
Script: Tom Baker, Michael Reeves, Louis M. Heyward, from a novel by Ronald Bassett
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Patrick Wymark