The horror world is full of legends. In Hollywood, Universal Studios had Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. Across the pond in England, the Hammer Horror pictures had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The biggest of these icons of fright, however, was Vincent Price. Price’s cultural impact transcended the horror world; he appeared everywhere from “The Muppet Show” to “The Love Boat,” and contributed to recordings by musicians as varied as Michael Jackson and Alice Cooper. He gained fame and fortune with his campy sense of humor, but he was first and foremost a horror personality. Any doubts of this fact can be put to rest with one viewing of his 1968 film Witchfinder General.
Witchfinder General stars Price as Matthew Hopkins, a self-proclaimed witch hunter in 1645 England who locates, persecutes, and executes people who have been accused of practicing the dark arts. Along with his assistant, John Stearne (Robert Russell from Bedazzled), Hopkins travels from village to village, ridding the world of witches while charging the local government for his services. Hopkins and Stearne arrive in a town balled Brandeston and immediately accuse the town reverend, John Lowes (Rupert Davies from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), of witchcraft. Reverend Lowes’ daughter, Sara (Cry of the Banshee’s Hilary Dwyer), does all she can to save him, but Lowes is tortured and executed by Hopkins. Sara’s fiancé, a soldier named Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy from –And Now the Screaming Starts!), arrives too late to help, but he follows Hopkins and Stearne to the next town, vowing to avenge the Reverend’s murder. However, Hopkins and Stearne learn that Marshall is on their tail, and they have plans for him of their own.
Reportedly based on actual events, the screenplay for WItchfinder General was adapted by Michael Reeves (She Beast) and Tom Baker (The Sorcerers) from a novel by Ronald Bassett. It was the last film to be directed by Reeves, who would tragically die of an overdose at the terribly young age of 25 before he could make another. Witchfinder General is an obviously British film, but was released in America with a different title; in order to capitalize on Roger Corman’s success with Vincent Price in his Edgar Allan Poe movies, American International Pictures rechristened the film as The Conqueror Worm and added voiceover narration by Price at the beginning and end of the film, quoting passages from the Poe poem of the same name. Other than that, it has nothing to do with Poe or the Corman movies; taking nothing away from House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum, Witchfinder General is a much more disturbing film.
Vincent Price considered Matthew Hopkins, the titular WItchfinder General, as the most sadistic character that he had ever portrayed onscreen. Hopkins is pure evil, preying upon the superstitions and insecurities of the downtrodden country folk by supposedly ridding them of accused witches that he knows are innocent, and being paid handsomely to do it. In the film, Hopkins is shown intimidating and torturing his prisoners, coaxing false confessions out of them, and then brutally murdering them in horrific ways. The character shows no remorse, even when he knows that his victims are innocent. He is motivated by both money and power, and shows allegiance to no one, not even his sidekick Stearne. It is a character that Price plays perfectly, rejoicing in the audience’s hatred for him. Out of all of the villains that Vincent Price has brought to life, Matthew Hopkins is the most bloodthirsty.
Although Witchfinder General is touted as being a true story, the facts of the film have fallen under scrutiny. There really was a witchcraft scare in 17th century England, and Matthew Hopkins was a real witch hunter, although he was about half the age of the character portrayed by Vincent Price. However, the real Hopkins’ actions were never formally sanctioned by government, making him an outlaw. Hopkins and the real Stearne actually did execute Reverend John Lowes for dabbling in the occult, but his daughter’s fiancé did not pursue the murderers; the real witch hunters were chased by the clergy and the British crown. The witch trials themselves were also embellished for drama’s sake; the film ignores the actual courtroom trials, focusing more on the dungeon confession coercions and systematic executions of the accused. The British witch trials make up a chapter in history that many would rather forget, but films like Witchfinder General have exploited the era nonstop, reminding the public of the unjust persecution.
While the historical accuracy of the events in Witchfinder General may be at question, the visceral impact of the violence in the film is not. Witchfinder General contains brutal depictions of rape, torture, and execution, and the film is disturbing even if one does not believe that everything happened exactly as it appears onscreen. Hopkins and Stearne mercilessly torture and mutilate their victims in their attempts to coerce confessions. The opening scene of the film is absolutely horrifying, graphically showing the hanging of a convicted witch by Hopkins and his goons. Another scene shows a woman who has been found guilty tied to a stake and slowly lowered into a bonfire, screaming as she is burned alive. Witchfinder General contains scenes of witch hunting that may be more hysteria than history, but they are nevertheless terrifying.
For as brutal and unflinching as the violence in Witchfinder General gets, the special effects expose the viewer to the small budget of the film. The hangings and burnings are well done through camera trickery and editing, but the bloody stuff looks cheap. The effects were designed by Roger Dicken (who would go on to do visuals for Alien and The Hunger), and they are awkwardly silly in places. The blood is Technicolor red, and looks to have the consistency of paint rather than actual plasma. The weapons are laughable as well, with knives that are obviously dulled and axes that bounce off of their intended victim without leaving a scratch. While the torture and execution scenes in Witchfinder General are horrific and terrifying, the fighting and bloodletting is as campy as any scene from any film in Vincent Price’s catalog. Luckily, there’s not enough of it to ruin the overall effect of the picture.
Vincent Price holds a special place in the annals of horror history, but the actor is primarily remembered for his moustache-twisting, tongue-in-cheek performances. Witchfinder General proves that, given a proper script and a skilled director, the man could make a genuinely horrifying film.