WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) – The Dungeon Review!
Witchfinder General is a Tigon Film; a short lived UK Studio with a slim catalogue. What I’ve seen from Tigon, Witchfinder General along with The Blood on Satan’s Claw are the two gems in their crown. Witchfinder General is not really a horror film despite its ample body count. The witch hunts were a real part of history and Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne were real men. According to Wikipedia Hopkins and Stearne went on a fourteen month crusade sending more people to the gallows than all of the witchfinders in the 160 years of persecution in England. These two loathsome bastards killed a lot of women to line their pockets. This is one of my favourite Vincent Price roles. Price gives an understated performance and is convincingly cold, arrogant and cruel. Vincent Price is definitely one of Witchfinder General’s strongest assets, but there are other reasons to appreciate it also.
Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne travel the country offering their services as persecutors of witches as a civil war rages between the Royalists and the Parliamentary Party. In one village Hopkins persecutes a priest and brings upon himself the vengeance of Richard Marshall who is engaged to the priest’s niece Sara Lowes. Not even the threat of treason will prevent Marshall from satisfying his bloodlust.
If it wasn’t for the love story and revenge subplot Witchfinder General would be a historical drama. It is a bleak and ugly subject matter that is not treated lightly. Even the love story is full of dark corners. Sara Lowes is a very tragic character. What happens to Sara just further illustrates the depravity and unbridled power Hopkins was able to wield. I didn’t think this part of the subplot distracted from the overall morbid feeling of the film at all. The revenge angle of the subplot was certainly a more satisfying finale for the evil Hopkins than his real life death at his home from Pleural Tuberculosis. Strangely the revenge portion was probably the weakest part of the story. I didn’t dislike Richard Marshall and his bloodlust is certainly justifiable I think I just wanted the character to be more compelling somehow. It is a petty complaint in what was a very solid story.
Witchfinder General is a fantastic looking film with amazing sets, props and costumes and captures its period beautifully. Hopkins was an active Witchfinder between 1644 – 1647. I think you can get a good idea of how nicely realized the sets were from the screenshot I included. Since I already raved about Vincent Price’s performance, I will add only that he receives some outstanding support from Robert Russell who plays the sadistic assistant John Stearne. Stearne does most of the dirty work and seems to take a particular joy from the torture part of his job. Stearne is a man who feels no pity or remorse in his pursuit to fill his purse. Russell is so very good at being so very heinous! Hilary Dwyer who plays Sara Lowes is lovely and likable and it is very sad to see her broken. Despite some minor issues with the character of Richard Marshall I thought Ian Ogilvy did a respectable job.
Witchfinder General is about a very disturbing period of history. The persecution of witches lasted 160 years in England! It is surreal to imagine this crazy shit went on at all never mind for 160 years. I would say this is a case where reality is so much more horrifying than fiction. Witchfinder General is a well-made, gritty film that is as fascinating as it is daunting and features one of Vincent Price’s most chilling performances. Highly recommended.
Dungeon Rating: 4/5
Directed By: Michael Reeves
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark, Wilfrid Brambell, Hilary Heath, Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, Tony Selby, Michael Beint