An ironic re-interpretation of the pastoral, Witchfinder General maintains the mode’s dewy pastures and vast exteriors, but replaces the romanticized viewpoint with a cruel cynicism and macabre palette. It strikes a unique juxtaposition between its content and landscape, shooting its sordid tale of torture and vengeance in natural light, swathed in shadowy dusk and fading blue skies, accompanied by the howling wind and creaking of tree branches against the night chill. For a horror picture, particularly one about a witch hunter, it completely abandons the supernatural, telling its tale of human avarice through an all-too-real and more frightening organic environment.
Our setting is 17th Century England, a nation divided in civil war and overwhelmed by a criminal element that exploits the lack of municipal law enforcement and superstitious nature of the populace. Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), our protagonist and an enterprising member of General Cromwell’s army, rides from camp to the neighboring Brandeston to set eyes on his lover, Sara (Hilary Dwyer), and perhaps ask for her hand in marriage. Regrettably, his visit isn’t met with jubilation, as his betrothed and her uncle (an aging ecclesiastic) are in hiding from local allegations of idolatry.
Responding to a request from the Brandeston magistrate, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), a lawyer and self-proclaimed “Witchfinder General,” and his brutish assistant, John Stearne (Robert Russell) travel to the village to interrogate and try the supposed blasphemers, a process that requires much physical torture and very little detective work. The technique used to break the will of Sara’s uncle is particularly brutal, consisting of needles strategically stuck in the back and waist to reveal the “Devil’s Mark,” a space on the skin consecrated by Satan that won’t bleed upon penetration.
The duo always garner a confession, but Hopkins never participates in the more sadistic aspects of coercion, leaving those to the aberrant imagination of his barbaric associate. Taking a backseat to the “action” is new for Vincent Price, but he turns in an admirably pared-down performance as the witchfinder, broodingly quietly, seeking only his due in silver and the bodily delights of a female subjugate.
Hopkins selects Sara as his latest conquest, allowing her to buy her uncle’s freedom through a litany of sexual favors, none of which will truly save the old man from the gallows. The abuse she endures at the hands of Hopkins and Stearne is truly repulsive and it’s hard not to notice that the female cast get the brunt of the sadistic interrogation sequences. Thankfully, this behavior is never advocated and only depicted to elaborate on the misogyny of the era, perfectly encapsulated in Hopkins’ statement on femininity as a “foul ungodliness.”
The only savagery that comes with the filmmaker’s stamp of approval is Richard Marshall’s retaliation, painted as Grand Guignol spectacle, drenched in cerise, fake blood and boasting a vivid eye gouging and the thudding cleave of a blunt axe. It was certainly provocative for the period, but the succinct flashes of grue don’t detract from the simple and evocative camerawork, which generates more menace through quick zoom and low-angle than gory retribution. Witchfinder General is also of philosophical merit, showing the contaminating nature of power and the profitability behind the “justice” system and prison industry, a theme that’s rather timely despite the archaic setting.
Witchfinder General (American International Pictures, 1968)
Directed by Michael Reeves
Written by Ronald Bassett (novel), Tom Baker (screenplay), Michael Reeves (screenplay) and Louis M. Heyward (additional scenes)
Photographed by John Coquillon