The English Civil War was a time when the whole social order was in question and religious fanaticism and superstition – opposite sides of the same coin – were rife. When nothing is certain nothing is safe, and fear can easily be exploited. Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witchfinder General, and his sadistic sidekick carry out witch-hunts for fun and profit, until a girl is raped and her fiancé vows revenge. A powerful, bleak, beautifully photographed film in which the tranquil East Anglian landscape provides a background to unspeakable (and unflinchingly presented) violence.
UK 1968, 87 minutes, Dir: Michael Reeves
All war is bad, but civil war must be the worst. Apart from the grief of friends and families rent by differing allegiances, it is a time when there is no generally accepted authority and the unscrupulous can exploit the weak virtually unchecked. The English Civil War was further complicated by the fragmentation of the Protestant religion: there was no generally accepted faith either. At such a time superstition makes as much sense as anything, and can also be exploited. Matthew Hopkins sets himself up as Witchfinder General and roams East Anglia with his sadistic sidekick, John Stearne. People are only too glad to get rid of witches, and the ‘witches’ can usually be made to confess – one way or another. The trade brings the two men money, sexual favours (willing or not) and, above all, power. Anybody can be a witch, if Hopkins says so. Until a girl is raped and her fiancé, Richard Marshall, vows revenge.
Many critics have approached Witchfinder General as an up-market Hammer Horror, perhaps because Vincent Price plays the evil villain. Unfortunately it’s not, it’s a historical drama. While his story is fictionalised, Matthew Hopkins was a real person, and what you see on the screen actually happened, to someone or other, around this time. Director Michael Reeves doesn’t go in for understatement or cartoon violence, and parts of the film aren’t easy to watch – you may wish you’d
brought a couch to hide behind. This is real, it happened, it was brutal, people got hurt.
If you can bear it, it’s a brilliant film: some have called it a masterpiece. The central performances are uniformly good (Price isn’t allowed to camp it up) and it’s beautifully photographed, with the peaceful landscape a poignant backdrop to the horror. Reeves’ view of humanity in this film seems unrelentingly bleak, and he died, apparently by his own hand, aged
only 24 and having made only three films: the others, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer, are seldom seen. Witchfinder was made on a shoestring, but after it big-budget offers poured in. According to his friend and collaborator, John Coquillon, at the time of his death Reeves was excited about a new film, starring an unknown young actor riding
around the USA on a motorbike. The provisional title was Easy Rider.
Matthew Hopkins – Vincent Price
Richard Marshall – Ian Ogilvy
John Stearne – Robert Russell
John Lowe – Ruper Davies
Sara – Hilary Dwyer
Director – Michael Reeves
Screenplay – Michael Reeves
from a novel by – Ronald Bassett
Photography – John Coquillon
Music – Paul Ferris
- “Rollicking stuff but wholly unbelievable. Some relief from the sepia photography would have been welcome.”
- “If one takes away the ‘darkening’ (effect), the colour looks as though it had been beautiful. And if one takes away the darkening violence, it seemed a simple Western laced with the then great 1930s Russian films. One guesses Derek Malcolm only watched 101 films!”
- “Not a bad comedy – for a horror film!”
- “Horror relieved by English cowboys.”
- “Very descriptive music!”
- “Hammy, amateurish & dated – 1960s.”
- “Melodramatic, stereotyped 60s-type with some hammy acting. Ill-fitting music. Historically suspect, too.”
- “More than a touch of Monty Python about this. Full marks for screaming & spitting but not much else – & what a travesty of a portrayal of Cromwell.”
- “Gruesome – & that was just the acting!”
- “Didn’t anyone tell the actors that they were meant to be in the 17th century ???”
- “Risible. So low budget they presumably had no money for script or screenplay.”
- “Every cliche in the book!”
- “Cliche ridden (with) wooden acting: like Monty Python but nastier. To think it was made in 1968 – more like 1948!”
- “Pity about the film quality – did this make it (indecipherable)? Witchfinder General – about the only special advisor appointment not made by the ‘Blair Administration’ (sic) yet!”