Witchfinder General is more historical reenactment than any kind of supernatural tale, but the horrors experienced in the world are far more terrifying than any creature we could dream up. Like many, I often watch horror movies to be entertained, so this one is an uncomfortable watch and not one I return to often. That said, it’s an important film and worth watching as a reminder of the atrocities that were committed to so many innocent people, a warning not to repeat the sins of the past, and as a showcase of Vincent Price, who delivers one of his best performances as the insidious Matthew Hopkins.
Filmed in 1967 as a co-production between Tigon and AIP, Witchfinder General is based on the 1966 novel of the same name from Ronald Bassett, but it should be considered a very loose adaptation of the historical events surrounding actual witch hunter Matthew Hopkins.
If you're familiar with the witch hunting methods detailed in movies or classes covering witch trials in Europe and New England, you know what you’re getting into here. Hopkins travels the English countryside, charging local magistrates for witch hunting “services.” Obviously, it behooves him to find witches in every town he visits so that he can collect his fee. Real-life cases saw townspeople and family turn against each other, claiming someone was a witch as a way to get back at them. Someone didn’t want to have sex with you? Call them a witch. You want someone’s land? Call them a witch. Someone is too popular in town and you’re jealous? Call them a witch. It was an easy way to get rid of your rivals when witch paranoia spread across Europe and North America, and Witchfinder General kind of gives us a highlight reel of sorts, showing us the mob mentality and torture methods, while following Hopkins and those trying to stop him.
The frustrating part of the witch trials is that there was rarely a defense that allowed the “witch” to live. If you were tossed into the water (sometimes weighted) and sank, you were seen as innocent, but died from drowning. If you floated, you were clearly a witch and would be killed by some other method. There’s no happy ending for anyone in Witchfinder General; even those who were spared will find it difficult to overcome the trauma they experienced. Many who were jailed and tortured, but spared death in Salem, for example, came back to financial ruin and lost property.
The production of this movie is as well known, if not more known, than the film itself. Director Michael Reeves and Vincent Price famously clashed on the set of the film. Reeves, who was 24 years old at the time of filming (and died of an overdose shortly after this film was released), was unhappy with the casting of Price and made it well known to Price and those on set. While this made for an uncomfortable shoot, it resulted in one of Vincent Price’s best performances. When I think of Vincent Price, I always picture that devilishly suave smile and theatrical quality to his performance, but it’s not present here. In what Price called “the most bloodthirsty character” he ever “brought to screen,” he delivers a more cold and grounded performance that makes you hate his version of Hopkins for having no remorse for the lives he’s destroying.
This film is an interesting one for both Vincent Price and AIP, as his previous AIP releases were more PG fare and this was (and still is) a very shocking movie to most audiences. In England, Witchfinder General was trimmed, as it was deemed too extreme for audiences. Re-visiting this film, it still makes me uncomfortable, knowing that there’s more truth here than fiction in how people were unfairly persecuted and abused.
On the macro level, I look back at what happened in the 1600s and say that we’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a long way to go. We may not be burning witches at the stake these days, but there’s still religious, gender, and ideological intolerance. Maybe it wasn’t on the top of the mind for Vincent Price at the time, but knowing of his defense of the arts and gay rights, I like to think that he knew this would be the performance of a lifetime, and his popularity would preserve Witchfinder General for generations as a reminder for society not to fall into the trappings of the past.