Witchfinder General (1968)
On a hillside a man is building a gibbet. A woman is dragged through a village. All we hear are her screams, the prayers of a priest and the wind. Without ceremony or dramatic pause, she is hung and the townsfolk turn away. The camera zooms in on Vincent Price, sitting watching the spectacle from afar. Before the credits have even rolled, we know we're not in for another Dr Phibes film, that's for sure.
And the credits themselves are a work of art, too - playing over images of women's faces in pain. What's going on? A classy, almost art-house Brit horror flick? Yes, and so much more. Witchfinder General is a real rarity, an actually terrifying horror movie. And yet it doesn't rely on gore, the supernatural or jumpy shocks. Somehow, the real terror comes from its historical accuracy.
The film proper starts with a group of Roundheads being ambushed in a forest by Royalists. Young captain Richard Marshal (Ian Ogilvy) is left to look after the horses whilst his companions chase their attackers - and we hear gunshots, but see no actual fighting. Ogilvy kills the last Royalist with a "lucky shot", and saves his commander, who was about to get a ball bearing in the head.
The unit splits up, young Nicky Henson making for any women who "keep their beds warm for General Cromwell's gallant man" (not much of a Puritan, then), and Richard heading back to his woman, Sarah.
She lives with her Uncle, a priest, in a small village called Brandeston. Her Uncle begs Richard to take Sarah away, but the young berk fails to see any danger.
17 minutes in, Price starts his grandstanding performance as Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General (the actual title of the film). He's busy doing "The Lord's work - a noble thing". Richard actually bumps into Hopkins and his evil "partner" Stern as they make their way to Sarah's village - little does the soldier know that Hopkins has been told of a priest who's busy "worshipping Satan and calling him lord". Once again, Richard fails to see any trouble. Boy, is he going to regret that blinkered attitude. Once in the village, Hopkins immediately sets to work, telling the villagers: "I will find out the truth for you, have no fear."
Finding out the "truth" involves stabbing the priest several times and forcing him to run around the room. Sarah, who can see the futility of the situation, promises to sleep with Hopkins if he stops the torture. Hopkins agrees, but on his way to Sarah's on the second night he is followed by Stern. Hopkins is called away from the village on urgent business, and tells Stern to leave the priest alone - the thug's too busy beating up old women, anyway - but he does manage to make time to slip away and rape Sarah. When Hopkins hears about this he decides to kill the priest anyway, and along with two old "witches", Sarah's unfortunate uncle is trussed up and thrown into a nearby moat.
Hopkins sums up his tough-but-fair approach like this: "They swim... the mark of satan is upon them. They must hang." Indicating the third woman, who has drowned, he adds: "She was innocent".
Richard, meanwhile, has been told of Hopkins' activities in Brandeston, but arrives too late, finding Sarah cowering in the desecrated church ("The Lord's work" eh?). Hearing what she's been through, he marries her and pledges to track down and kill the evil pair. He catches up with Stern, but manages to let him slip through his fingers - and Stern goes to warn Hopkins: "He's after our blood."
But Hopkins' chilling reply is a simple one: "You're forgetting our powers... he could be a witch."
After a bit of historical stuff involving the battle of Naseby and the escape of the King, Richard learns that the witchfinders are still at it - this time in Lavenham, which is of course where he sent Sarah to recuperate. The movie then rushes to its astonishing ending, which sees no-one win and everyone either dead, crippled or stark, raving mad.
"You took him from me... You took him from me... You took him from me..."
Time has not diminished the raw power of Witchfinder General. Its' perfect historical setting, beautiful camerawork and unflinching portrayal of something we'd all rather not think about ever having happened sets it apart as quite possibly the greatest British Horror Film ever made. High praise indeed, but without a doubt deserved.
Last updated: February 27, 2010