I remember when I lived in London I loved perusing the list of films being shown citywide in the listings magazine Time Out. In those days (the mid 90s) there were plenty of funky little cinemas showing all manner of films old and new, renowned and obscure.
I remember going to see Witchfinder General and it instantly becoming one of my favourite films. The thing that shocked me most about the film was that it’s based on fact.
Set upon the backdrop of the Civil War between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, there was thought by those in charge to be a surge in lawlessness amongst the populace. With no state enforcers of the law being in place it was possible for self-appointed one-man ‘judge, jury and executioner’ figures to spring up. With these times being still very religious with that fanaticism stretching to superstitious extremes then such a figure could rationalise that he was doing God’s work and stamping out witchcraft and Satan worship.
Step forward Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price). He leads his team of bloodthirsty underlings from town to town, stamping out ungodliness whilst accusing those who get in his way of being witches and so has the approval of the state to dispose of them in any number of ghoulish ways. One method in which he tests to see if people are witches is to throw them in a local lake or river. If they sink and drown, they weren’t a witch. But if they float then they are evil and need to be burnt, flogged or any other kind of torture. It’s lose/lose for the accused.
Director Micheal Reeves’ film doesn’t flinch away from the sadistic acts that Hopkins (who actually existed) inflicts and how utterly barbaric and cruel the times were. There are some great examples of dark gallows humour too- notice the children who have just witnessed a supposed ‘witch’ being burnt to death. We see them baking potatoes in her still smouldering ashes.
Witchfinder General was very controversial when it was first released with the BBFC demanding cuts and most critics denouncing the film’s unblinking depiction of the devilish practices carried out by Hopkins and his cronies. But, some critics saw the greatness in the film and over the years the film has gained a reputation as somewhat of a sick classic. Price’s performance is restrained and nuanced. Reeves’ direction is amazing and it feels almost as if you are watching a documentary rather than a British/American horror film from the late 60’s. American International Pictures invested some of the money for the film to be made but only thought of it as a tax write-off. They were actually very surprised when they saw the finished movie and how good it was. It’s name was changed to The Conqueror Worm for the U.S. Drive-In markets as this was a line from Edgar Allen Poe whose adaptations AIP were (in)famous for.
I love the stories about Price and Reeves not getting along during the shooting of the film. Donald Pleasance was originally chose to play Hopkins but Price was available and a bigger star which could translate as more money at the box office. With Price playing the lead instead the script had to be changed to accommodate him. Reeves wasn’t impressed by this and let it be known that he didn’t want Price in the leading role.
One of many examples of the bitchiness between them was from when they first met. Price’s opening gambit to the 28 year old Reeves was ‘I’ve starred in 87 films. What have you done?’ to which Reeves deadpanned ‘I’ve made 3 good ones.’
Witchfinder General is a warts and all classic. But don’t underestimate it. This is strong even by today’s standards and contains one of the most disturbing endings for a film I’ve ever seen.
5 out of 5 stars