In 1967, Vincent Price travelled to Britain to make low-budget horror, Witchfinder General (1968). Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first choice for the role. It was a predicament which 24-year-old director Michael Reeves mercilessly used to his advantage.
Set in 1645, during extreme turbulence and lawlessness exacerbated by the English Civil War, the opening scenes depict a woman wailing in distress, bound by ropes as she is dragged like livestock surrounded by an indifferent crowd, led by a member of the clergy who recites biblical passages in a last ditch attempt to save her unclean soul, as he paves the way to the woman’s ultimate appointment with the hangman’s noose. Meanwhile, Matthew Hopkins, a pious, self-appointed Witchfinder General and “lawyer” (Vincent Price) shrouded in black, observes his handiwork at a carefully maintained distance.
Hopkins’ raison d’être is to engage in his own bitter prejudices under the auspices of carrying out “God’s work” and to “drive out Satan” from amongst the great unwashed as he proceeds to dunk, hang and burn his way through the rolling hills of a forlorn East Anglican countryside with impunity. His speciality? Persecuting the innocent, mostly women accused of witchcraft based on little more than ignorance, spite and redundant Chinese whispers bolstered and dispersed like a pathogen on the East Anglican breeze.
Summonsed to Brandeston by disgruntled villagers weary of the particular machinations of their eccentric parish priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies) Hopkins sets out to dispense with him when he’s accused of baring the “Devils Mark”. Unsurprisingly loathe to soil his own pristine essence, Hopkins employs his sidekick and willing accomplice John Stearne (Robert Russell) a nasty, low-rent, hollow-eyed, empty shell of a man who instigates his masters wishes of “Witch Pricking” with a long steel spike to determine the whereabouts of said “Devils Mark” with sadistic relish.
However, in an attempt to save the priest, his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer), offers herself to Hopkins. But when her lover, Cromwellian soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) returns once more to visit her and discovers the carnage which has ensued, ennobled by a sense of burgeoning rage and equipped with a healthy lack of respect for authority, he seeks out Hopkins with a view to administering some God-given punishment of his own.
Filming took place over a five-week period during an autumnal Suffolk. The damp conditions weren’t conducive to a Hollywood star such as Price who found the project challenging; not just in terms of his surroundings but also due to his antagonist relationship with his blunt, sensitive and strong-willed director who wanted Donald Pleasence for the role, but was overruled by American International Pictures who co-funded the production. In retaliation Reeves refused to greet Price on his arrival, and avoided him off set, expressing a lack of reverence which dismayed and exasperated Price who referred to Reeves as an “anti-social Limey screwball.”
In addition, his classical, yet often camp and hammy repertoire honed to perfection in many a definitive horror, including The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) was at odds with Reeves’ pared down, reductive ideas of characterization, provoking Price to ask, “Young man, I’ve been in 84 films. How many have you made?” to which Reeves replied, “Two good ones.”
The film was inspired by the real-life escapades of Matthew Hopkins who murdered up to 300 innocent men and women with the blessing of an increasingly defensive and paranoid Church of England, which in its efforts to sustain its power base and to counter the growing influence of science and the Reformation sought to sacrifice souls. Primarily those of single women, people who bore skin imperfections, cat lovers, and anyone considered unconventional, who according the Church represented the earthly visage of the supernatural.
Price eventually deferred to his director evoking a profile of a sadistic, seething, heartless monster who used the unrelenting turmoil, bleakness and despondency of the era to further his own mercenary ends. Witchfinder General was one of the best performances of his career and Price continued to shine in other cult classics including The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973).
The production was a commercial success, taking advantage of newly relaxed censorship laws by embracing the obligatory bare technicolored breasts, copious amounts of Kensington gore and circumventing numerous cuts ordered by the censors to scenes of torture and barbarity. Reeves whose previous endeavor, The Sorcerers (1967) was also afforded cult status found himself inundated with scripts, but often described as a tortured soul he fell into a deep depression and died in 1969 from a drugs overdose.
Witchfinder General in all of its sordid degradation is terrifying because it doesn’t present a bogey man in a mask with the requisite weapon of choice; there aren’t any supernatural entities, apparitions or zombies to contend with. Just a vulnerable, intimidated and splintered populace adopting a hive mind often based on hearsay, inflicting and justifying monstrous acts of cruelty on fellow human beings deemed “other” or “different” in order to maintain and defend not only a tenuous sense of normality and security, but ultimately the status quo.
© 2019 Dawn Daniels