By the time Witchfinder General came out, Vincent Price had long been America’s horror film king, picking up the mantle from Boris Karloff (who was British himself) in films like The Fly, The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by director Roger Corman, which cemented the actor’s legacy. He’d certainly played his fair share of evil villains, and would go on to play many more, but none of them were as shockingly reprehensible and utterly vile as the character of Matthew Hopkins, the titular pious devil he played in Michael Reeves’ incendiary 1968 film, Witchfinder General, a film that will make you positively despise Vincent Price, a feat almost thought unreachable to most horror film fanatics. That’s the mark of great acting, by the way.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself based on that trailer “Why would Kyle lie to me and tell me this was a different movie than it says it is?” I’m not a liar. Have some faith in me. When released in the U.S., the film was re-branded The Conqueror Worm in order to capitalize on the aforementioned Price/Corman/Poe films coming out around the same time. In truth, Witchfinder General has no ties at all to Edgar Allan Poe and is in fact based on the true-ish story of Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer who claimed to have been charged with being the Crown’s official “Witch Finder” in 17th Century England to root out devil worship and the occult. During his 3 year career hunting witches, between 1644 and 1647, more people were hanged for witchcraft than in the previous 100 years combined. Real nice fella, this guy.
In the film, Matthew Hopkins and his compatriot Stearne (Robert Russell) are using the English Civil War to their advantage, effectively running roughshod over East Anglia claiming to be the official witch hunters of the land, going into town, accusing, torturing, and eventually executing several “unsavory” members of the community before leaving and demanding the local magistrates pay them for their troubles. It’s a horrible scheme, but they’re quite successful at it. Meanwhile, a young Roundhead soldier named Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) has returned home to his lover Sara (Hilary Dwyer) after killing his first enemy in order to save his captain. This act has shaken him up a bit, but he is a very noble young man and remains true to the cause. Sara’s uncle Fr. Lowes (Rupert Davies) is the local priest in the area and Marshall learns upon his return that the priest and Sara have been ostracized by the community. Marshall asks Lowes for his niece’s hand in marriage and Lowes agrees on the stipulation that they leave immediately because something bad is coming.
Marshall thinks this is rather silly and claims no harm shall befall Sara as long as he lives. He rides off back to join his regiment and passes Hopkins and Stearne who ask him for directions to their very town. When Hopkins and Stearne arrive, they begin rounding up perfectly innocent people, one of whom is Fr. Lowes. They imprison and torture him with needles to the back before Sara comes in and pleads with them to stop. Hopkins only agrees if Sara gives him something in return… you know what it is… Before he can collect, he’s called away for another purpose, but Stearne, a vile and base man, proceeds to rape Sara in his boss’ absence. When Hopkins returns and finds out what Stearne has done, he thinks Sara to be tainted and reneges on their deal and resumes torturing Lowes and eventually executes him and other innocent people.
Marshall returns and is aghast at what has befallen his town and his lady fair. He swears vengeance against Hopkins and Stearne, but with the town in fear of them and their accusations, which bring with them torture and death, the witch finders are practically untouchable. Marshall finds Sara and “marries” her in the remains of their broken-down church and then he sets off to kill his enemies, who immediately arrest and imprison Marshall and Sara and subject them to torture. Mostly, it should be said, the torture is handed out to Sara with Marshall being made to watch helplessly. Well, not TOO helplessly; he is able to free himself and makes his way for his captors who run off. He stomps Stearne’s head in and is then chased by his own regiment until he finally finds Hopkins and grabs and ax… not even this moment is as satisfying as it should be.
As if it didn’t sound that way from the description, Witchfinder General is a highly disturbing and unpleasant movie, which is especially strange given it was made in Britain in 1968. It was basically lambasted by the conservative film critic crowd of the time who decried its scenes of graphic violence, even though it had been heavily cut by the British censors already. For comparison, it was released in the United States under the alternate title completely uncut and became a big hit, even if the mainstream press paid it no mind. This IS a shockingly violent and bleak movie, and is also intensely frustrating given the way witch trials and things were back then. Once accused, there was nothing anyone could do to stave off torture and possible death save confess to being a devil worshiper, which would mean eternal castigation. It was a no-win scenario and this movie did that brilliantly.
Price himself gives possibly his best performance in this role. As I said earlier, he makes you hate him and want him to get what’s coming to him, which is something only the best villains can do. This isn’t a bad guy you sort of chuckle at the audacity of and enjoy the company of before they’re eventually defeated; this is a guy who makes you want him to suffer as badly as his victims, but even then it isn’t what you want because you’re like “Hey, it’s Vincent Price and I like him most of the time and don’t want to see him get really badly killed, but he is an evil person in this… what have you done to me, Price!?!?!?!”
Witchfinder General is truly a rarity in the Vincent Price oeuvre, a part he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to play given the tone of this movie versus the tone of the movies he normally did, but he knocked it out of the park. He’s chilling, hateful, and transcends just simply being a horror icon to proving himself again to be a proper great actor. This is definitely worth a view this Halloween season.