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31 Days of British Horror – Witchfinder General (1968)

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.


 

Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Patrick Wymark
Director: Michael Reeves


There’s no winners in Witchfinder General. No heroes or justice, no nobilty or honour. There’s just villains and victims. Pain, horror and death. That’s the world that Matthew Hopkins both lives in and in some part creates, him and men like him.

Loosely based on the real life historical figure of the same name, Michael Reeves’ final film would be his masterpiece, one so unflinchingly honest in its depiction of evil that critics, cinema-goers and even its star himself didn’t understand it, at least at first. It’s now rightly regarded as one of the most important horror films of all time and has lost none of it’s power to shock, even today.

After starting strongly, if low-key, with The Sorcerers and fairly wobbling somewhat with The Blood Beast Terror, the still fledgeling Tigon Films pulled off a masterstroke, not only producing one of the greatest horror films of the era, but one that’s now rightly regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

In 1645, during the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) takes advantage of the breakdown in social order to impose a reign of terror in East Anglia, setting himself up as a witch hunter. Alongside his assistant, the brutal John Stearne (Robert Russell), he travels from village to village, torturing and executing those accused of witchcraft and charging for the service.

When they arrive at Brandeston, the pair begin to interrogate the village priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies), but his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer)
offers herself to Hopkins to spare his life, but succeeds only in buying him an extra day of torture before he is hung as a witch.

Meanwhile, Sara’s finance Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is a young Roundhead who returns from duty to find Sara raped by Stearne and Lowes Dead. Swearing revenge, a chain of events is set in place that can only end in disaster…

Right from the off, this is a deeply unsettling film, opening with what you know is an innocent woman being dragged to a gallows hill, with a howling, unforgiving wind being drowned out by her screaming and the drone of a priest’s monotone bible reading.

A regular fixture in director Michael Reeves’ films, Ian Ogilvy is perfectly cast as the closest we’ll get to a heroic character. Tall, handsome and brave, his slow decline into obsession and eventually madness is so much more effective due to Ogilvy’s presence, with his natural charisma shining through, making us feel his pain all the more.

It says a lot about how good he is that he can carry as much of the film as he does, because really, this is the Vincent Price show. He’s an actor that never fails to entertain or enthrall, but for Witchfinder General, he’s so sinister, so malevolent and downright evil it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He plays him as a supposedly righteous man, but he’s anything but. Instead, he’s a capricious misogynist, happy to take advantage of God-fearing women like Marshall’s fiancé Sara. His line when he suggests a new method of killing “witches” by fire hints at his true motivations – “A fitting end for the foul ungodliness in womankind”.

It’s an incredible performance by Price from start to finish. There’s no redeeming qualities to Matthew Hopkins, so it would be easy for him just to be a one-dimensional monster, but such is the subtlety that the actor brings to it that, while we don’t empathise with him at all, he feels like a real human being. Remarkable.

The other most disturbing thing about Witchfinder General is how much of a character the English countryside feels. The green and pleasant land is far from pleasant, it’s lush forests feel claustrophobic and full of potential danger, while the open fields and hills are barren wastelands, that wind again howling over them.

The whole thing is a masterpiece and you can lay the bulk of the credit at the door of director Michael Reeves. He’d shown his promise on the previous year’s The Sorcerers, but what he achieved here is truly astonishing. With a hand in the script too, Witchfinder General is the result of his singular vision, so much so that even Price himself didn’t really get it until he saw the finished product. Reeves creates a truly nightmarish world, one that runs on suspicion, distrust and malice, using deft camera work and shot construction to both give an oppressive and again, claustrophobic feel at times, coupled with frequent long shots that distance us from the horrors unfolding, merely to watch, helplessly as the next monstrous injustice occurs.

There’s beauty in the grimmest scenes too, particularly the gorgeously framed shot of Marshall cradling his raped finance as she collapses in the ruined church, both she and the holy building desecrated, the bright red of his uniform jacket a stark contrast to the bleak colours around him. Stunning.

His use of noise brings so much time the atmosphere too, whether the wind in the background, or the cracking fire below a victim that we can’t see, but only hear and dread.

Make no mistake, Reeves was a once in a generation talent, making his death a year later at the horribly young age of 25 all the more tragic.

It ends as it began, with a woman screaming. Appropriate, considering what the film is really about, but the ending is so much more harrowing than the start, which is saying something. Torture, insanity, death. There’s no going back and the legacy of Matthew Hopkins will live on long after his death.

Sometimes, even the word “masterpiece” doesn’t seem to be quite enough. This is one of those times. May God have mercy on us all, indeed.

Rating: 5/5.



JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy


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