Witchfinder General (1968 United Kingdom)

In 1645 the accusing word witch (or papist in England) was enough to have your human rights roundly violated. Today we have the politically powerful elite wielding a similar power with the use of the word racist. Some things don’t change. Witchfinder General’s exploitative elements are tempered by the ever-reliable presence of horror maestro Vincent Price, who manages to keep the film feeling respectable. Proving his versatility as an actor, Price’s performance is surprisingly understated; perhaps he felt that the subject matter was already macabre enough, without the need for his own unique vocal flourishes. Indeed, far from being frightening, Matthew Hopkins comes across as little more than a methodical businessman, his moral quandaries not necessarily absent, but merely set aside to make room for his wages.

Gleefully advertised as “The Year’s Most Violent Film!,” which could only mean something to the people alive in 1968. It doesn’t seem that gory to us today obviously. Perhaps the critics’ rejection of ‘Witchfinder General’ has something to do with the accusatory manner in which director Michael Reeves frames the violence, capturing the executions, not from a moral high-horse, but as one of the curious spectators who circles around to gawk at the morbid spectacle of murder. Reeves focuses on the faces of the on-lookers, which boast an uncomfortable mingling of sadness and fascination. Matthew Hopkins is an opportunist making a living, but these are the people who allow, and even facilitate, the brutal torture of their neighbours. Watching this is not a pleasant experience, but it is a classy piece of work.

The great historical horror film of them all. As a straight depiction of the ignorance, brutality and debauchery of the late Middle Ages it is a powerful statement. As a bloody horror film it has plenty of scary and disturbing scenes. At the same time, it’s strangely beautiful; Paul Ferris’ lovely score counterpoints the horrible moments, and John Coquillon’s exceptional photography recalls the period paintings of Rembrandt or Vermeer. Michael Reeves, only 23 at the time and soon to tragically die of a drug overdose, eschews any comic moments or unrealistic moralising, focusing purely on trying to recreate the period accurately in his effective hybrid of revenger’s tragedy and historical drama. Everyone is bad; the authorities are all corrupt, the common people are stupid sheep, women are pieces of meat to be used & abused at will while merely staying alive is the only goal in life. (A bit like those dudes in ISIS)

The film grips you from the opening scene of a ‘witch’ being hung. It is portrayed with no sentiment, no sign of phony fiction…it is a scene of utter brutality. The screams of the condemned witch are chilling and perhaps it can be said that no movie revolves around the agonized screams and groans of people in torment more than Witchfinder General. This stark, almost cinema verite portrayal of physical violence and evil gives this tale unbelievable power and force. When John Stearne (Robert Russell, terrifically real as a torturing rapist) thrusts needles into the backs of his victims, the camera neither shrinks back or zooms in on the wounds. When Stearne himself digs a musket ball from his arm with a knife, his own scream is one of the film’s most chilling. The final scene packs a big punch full of emotional and psychological intensity. This disturbing and mind shattering scene, which hasn’t lost its ability to distress the psyche, will stay with you forever… scream Sarah, scream!

As for the cast in general I take my hat off to Ian Ogilivy, who gives a manly performance as the obsessed avenger of his violated woman’s honour…Rupert Davies is very believable as the kindly Catholic priest, John Lowes. His decency is in stark contrast to the brutes who invade his peaceful abode…Patrick Wymark has an interesting cameo as Oliver Cromwell…Hilary Dwyer is pleasingly attractive and looks suitably frightened inbetween her bouts of screaming…Steptoe & Son’s Wilfred Brambell turns up, playing a feckless peasant. As for the real Matthew Hopkins–he was a man in his twenties, and his assistant was an old hag of a woman. The worst place Hopkins left his legacy was in Manningtree, a pretty town near Colchester in Essex. Many locals claim Manningtree to be haunted by the spirits of his victims. They often hold ghost walks there, some even claim he is there in spirit. Maybe he is.

(The actress who played Sarah, Hilary Dwyer, was brutally raped in real life by an intruder at her Barbados home in 2004. Due to the attack she has been physically disabled )

Advertisements

Comments

  1. History repeats itself. In the 1950s there was mass hysteria concerning Communists. Now there is mass hysteria about racism.

    “It’s . . . a disservice to say that there is a Communist under every bush or behind every tree.” Anon.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent review, ‘Witchfinder General’ is one of the greatest horror films of all time in my opinion. The ending will forever give me chills!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: