Margaret NolanVincent PriceRupert DaviesTonySelby
Witchfinder General
Medium: film
Year: 1968
Director: Michael Reeves
Writer: Tom Baker (no, a different one), Ronald Bassett, Louis M. Heyward, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Reeves
Keywords: horror, historical, Tigon
Country: UK
Actor: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Heath, Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, Tony Selby, Bernard Kay, Margaret Nolan, Sally Douglas
Format: 86 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 17 September 2002
No fun at all. It's a good movie, but... hell, it got to me. Vampires, werewolves, etc. are all very well, but Matthew Hopkins was real. Michael Reeves's film goes out of its way to ground itself in historical context (the English Civil War, the battle of Naseby, etc.) and so it all becomes distressingly convincing. 1645 might be over 350 years ago, but we still remember the Civil War in England just as the Americans remember theirs.
William Rees-Mogg once wrote in The Times that English people can still be divided into Cavaliers and Roundheads. We know which side we'd have fought on. Personally I've always sided with the Cavaliers, but there's a lot to be said for the 1066 And All That assessment of "Wrong But Romantic" versus "Right But Repulsive". Perhaps I'm more steeped in history than most people, but I couldn't set these events aside as just another nasty movie. Matthew Hopkins was a real witchfinder, paid twenty shillings for every "witch" he killed. People were tortured and murdered by him without any real chance to defend themselves. On reflection I think his official power upset me more than anything else. There will always be bastards, but it's another matter when bastards are given authority by Parliament to torture and kill innocent people on a whim, for profit.
I suppose all this is a compliment to the film. I certainly felt horror when watching it - not just fear, but actual horror. A big part of this was the apparent inevitability. In real life, Matthew Hopkins didn't die for another two years. I won't spoil the ending by saying whether this film breaks with historical accuracy and lets the good guys win, but I certainly assumed it wasn't going to.
Okay, let's put all that aside. Regarding it merely as a work of cinematic fiction, how well does it work?
This Metrodome Special Edition DVD includes both versions of the film: the UK domestic cut and the more explicit version for foreign distribution. Good fact! To my surprise, the extra material (which is of inferior picture quality but good to see anyway) doesn't involve nudity but sadistic violence. Both versions show naked breasts a-plenty, but a fair bit of torture and death was denied to domestic audiences at the time of release. The film's night-time scenes are poorly shot, reducing the cast to black silhouettes against a murky background, but otherwise it looks good. I particularly liked the way in which lovely countryside is contrasted with the bloodshed taking place there.
Matthew Hopkins is obviously the central character. His first dialogue scene establishes him as a devout, God-fearing Puritan... and then the rest of the film undercuts this by showing him to be a self-serving dirty old man who hardly cares about guilt or innocence so long as he gets to kill people. His methods involve doublethink that would make him either the biggest idiot in Christendom or just plain evil. You could hypothesise all day about what's going on inside his head, but whatever it is ain't pleasant. Vincent Price plays it deadly straight, rarely lapsing into his usual purring persona. His English accent comes courtesy of California but sheer screen presence lets him get away with it. He's Vincent Price! A half-baked central performance would have wrecked this film, but Price is never less than compelling. Apparently the director Michael Reeves wanted Donald Pleasence to play Hopkins, but the American distributor and co-financier demanded Price.
A surprise was waiting for me in the credits. Apparently this film was co-written by Michael Reeves and Tom Baker! Unfortunately this wasn't the Tom Baker of time-travelling fame, so Doctor Who fans will have to make do with watching Tony Selby and Bernard Kay. Carry On fans might be interested to note that two of the girls at the inn appeared in that movie series: Margaret Nolan and Sally Douglas. Though I confess that when they appeared I wasn't watching their faces.
I don't know if I could exactly recommend this film. It's a powerful piece of cinema, but don't expect a good time watching it. Also known as Edgar Allan Poe's The Conqueror Worm, but that's a poem and this film is primarily based on a novel by Ronald Bassett. But if anyone's interested, apparently the real Matthew Hopkins was forced to take one of his own tests in 1647. He was bound and thrown into a river, floated and was sentenced to death accordingly.