WITCHFINDER GENERAL October 29, 2016
Michael Reeves’s sadistic Witchfinder General stands as an anomaly in Vincent Price’s predominantly cheeky oeuvre staunchly because of its sadism. It’s one of the few — maybe even the only — movie he ever made in which he didn’t appear to be wearing the Price “persona”. With no mordant humor to make his titular villain something of a likably disturbed antagonist, his Matthew Hopkins (based on the real “witch” hunter that caused widespread panic in the mid-seventeenth century) is a malevolent figure of everyday fear. He gets off on causing widespread panic, on abusing authority. Depicted here is not a cartoon of evil a la his foe in 1953’s awesome House of Wax but a monster that manages to slither his way to the top of the ranks of a susceptible society.
To call it among Price’s finest works is perhaps overdoing it — though the tonal disparity between Witchfinder General and nearly every one of his other movies is enlivening, the fun to be had is minimal — but indubitable is the fact that it’s one of his most interesting vehicles. How fascinating it is when a master of tongue-in-cheek horror plain and simply becomes horrific.
While arguably miscast (the real Hopkins only lived to be twenty-seven), Price is nonetheless a knockout as the eponymous brute. Heavily fictionalized, the film takes place during the last few weeks of Hopkins’s reign of terror. A proponent of going from village to village and “effectively” deciding who and who isn’t a practicer of witchcraft, he figures himself to be a god among men and a quasi social justice warrior. (His favorite method of discovering the “truth” of someone’s identity is to force the accused into dirty moats and see if they sink or float, with floating signifying that someone’s a witch and sinking signifying humanity and that Hopkins was wrong after all.)
The downfall of the witch hunter comes inadvertently in the form of Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a heroic Roundhead fresh from his first triumph in combat and ready to marry his childhood love (Hilary Dwyer). With his and Hopkins’s arrival in the English town coinciding, their coming in contact with one another is purely coincidental, mostly having to do with Sarah’s father, the local priest (Rupert Davies), being amid the first to be accused of witchery by Hopkins. Only when Sarah’s life is threatened does Richard step in, and from there begins a ruination the disgustingly powerful Hopkins never saw coming.
Effectual is the way Witchfinder General is as much a historical piece as it is an étude in the horror genre — since its chills are embedded in some form of truth (even though the film doesn’t altogether resemble the life Hopkins really lived), we find ourselves psychologically referring to other times in history in which charismatic men with too much jurisdiction on their side abused their powers with murderous results. And the film is all the more frightening because of it.
But the exploring of that idea is not as frank as I’d like it to be — compelling would have been a film that more intrinsically analyzed the misapplication of influence. Some investigation is there — the way no one dares to stand up for themselves whenever Hopkins is around is quietly petrifying — but director Reeves (a twenty-five year old wunderkind who would die just a year later from an overdose) mostly drenches the film in Roger Corman/Poe style that makes it more Hammer Horroresque than Downfall (2004) heady. And I suppose it should be that way, but a feeling of missed opportunity hangs in the air that can hardly be thrust aside.
Price, predictably, is a sensation, with the actors surrounding him additionally cogent in their characterizations and with Reeves staging various acts of violence with disconcerting competency that makes every moment of bloodletting excruciating. In its miserable eighty-six minutes, though, are its weighty themes only thinly scrutinized, its impact there but not explosive. But I love its ambiguous conclusion and I love Price’s performance, and that’s enough to propel me toward the side of positivity. B-