Reviewer: James Ackland
Director - Michael Reeves
Actors - Ian Ogilvy/Rupert Davies/Vincent Price
Genre - Horror
Label - Cinema Cult
Audio - English (Dolby Digital 2.0)
Running Time - 86
Aspect Ratio - 1.78:1
Region Coding - B
Rating - R18+
Year of Release - 1968
Get it here from SCREENPOP
“Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do”- Matthew Hopkins
1968 was a watershed year for horror. Night of the living dead ushered us into the classic Zombie age and Rosemary’s Baby into the world of physiological horror and occult.
Meanwhile in areas in East Anglia, England, Michael Reeves was mixing a historical cautionary tale with some soon to be well repeated horror tropes.
It’s 1645 and the english civil war is producing all sorts of social unrest. During this time the idea of Witchcraft bringing a curse on the town was perfectly accepted and lawfully punishable. Those who sought to benefit from purging a witch and their evil could profit handsomely. It’s religious righteousness running out of control.
Enter Matthew Hopkins, a real life figure who turns lawyer to Witch finder. Responsible for over 300 executions in a 2 year period. Here in Reeves’ adaption of Ronald Bassett’s book of the same name we see Vincent price play the witch finder and what a fantastic job he does.
In the town of Brandeston, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) a young solider of the parliament stops to visit his priest and his lover Sara (Hilary Dwyer ) whom he is to marry. All this sets the dominos for what is to come as Hopkins and his drunk and violent associate, John Stearne (Robert Russell) appear and decide to earn some money by listening to the local rumour mill which puts catholic priest in league with SATAN!
Hopkins uses Sara as sexual blackmail to save the priest (also her father) from torture. However this can only last so long as the vicious bloodlust and jealousy of Stearne grows and his relationship with Hopkins starts to take a dark turn.
I can’t say that the logic of proving witchcraft in the 17th century was entirely sound, but people seemed to agree that if you’re submerged in water, should you float (with help from SATAN of course) or swim (again… with SATANS help)… you’ll be sure to caught out a witch… or you just drown and well… that’s that.
On learning of the towns witch purge, Marshall absconds from his duties to return and investigate the executions.
I do dislike going to much into plot. So if i’ve caught your attention… then this film will not disappoint!
Vincent price, riding his on a long and successful career was challenged to go to straighter places for Witch finder General. This was to pay off and add a much needed darkness to the film. Already a mainstay in American and British horror, Price famously was accused on set by director Reeves of overacting and subsequent filming incidents occurred. Only after viewing the finished product did Price realise what Reeves was striving for.
While technically the lead but not the star, Ian Ogilvy gives a strong performance and ends the film in a stunning bout of emotional fury. Also of note is the beautiful Hilary Dwyer in her cinematic debut.
Reeves, director of She Beast (1966) and The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff was riding high and was an up comer of the new english cinema. Unfortunately it would be his last feature as the 25 year old passed away soon after completion of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose.
Watching this with fresh eyes i simply am in awe of what Reeves accomplished. At 25, to make a classic of the genre AND put Vincent Price in probably his most compelling role to date. Simply awesome!
We’ve reviewed Michael Armstrong's MARK OF THE DEVIL here on the DSC and can’t help but notice the similar themes taken from Witchfinder. Mostly the sadistic torture and BURNING OF PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL ALIVE. It’s clearly made its mark even so soon after its initial release. With a film this dark and its bleak ending it’s no wonder that so many writers and directors take from it so often. I saw elements taken here and put into films like Straw Dogs and Texas chainsaw. Characters destroyed, but alive. Sometimes i wonder which they’d prefer.
Cinema Cult have taken a film that helped start the cult phenomenon and have giving it a brilliant Blu Ray presentation.