Witchfinder General (1968)

75

I am arguably on a bit of a Vincent Price bender at the moment. The man was amongst the greatest actors to ever live and possessed charm and brilliance in copious amounts. I knew I wanted to watch a Price film, but I wasn’t quite sure of which one. Deciding to avoid the obvious choice of one of his campier gothic horror films, I rather chose to go with the highly-acclaimed and fascinating Witchfinder General, a film that has developed quite a cult following for a number of reasons. Full disclosure – I didn’t love it as much as others have lead me to believe I would, but I did enjoy it. Honestly, I found it to be a slightly unremarkable, but well-made thriller with some wonderfully unique sequences, but a lack of a complete and rounded focus that would have elevated it to another level.

Witchfinder General is set in the seventeenth century, during the English Civil War. Our protagonist is Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a young British soldier who returns to his hometown in Suffolk to marry his bride-to-be Sara (Hilary Dwyer). However, he discovers that the sinister Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) is patrolling the region, looking for accusations of witchcraft, and then subsequently executing those that are “proven” to be witches. When Hopkins and his sadistic partner John Stearne (Robert Russell) kill Sara’s uncle and one of Richard’s mentors, the priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies), Richard sets out for revenge, and to stop the reign of terror whereby innocent people are being slaughtered, and crowds are manipulated into accusing their own brethren of being practitioners of witchcraft.

I’ll get right to the point – the only genuine reason to see Witchfinder General is for Vincent Price. He is the main draw towards this film, and there is very little else about this film that warrants merits. However, I do warn you not to make the same mistake I made – I went into Witchfinder General with the expectation of seeing one of Price’s gleefully unhinged and campy performances that became his trademark – he wasn’t a camp actor, nor was he someone who relied on artificiality to sell his career, but he certainly didn’t avoid having fun with a role, particularly in some lighter horror fare. It is what he is most beloved for. In Witchfinder General, we are given Price at his most subtle and sinister. He plays a straightforward villain, without any of the gloriously excessive energy that made his more notable villain roles iconic. I would hesitate to call this Price playing against type – he was known for playing creepy villains in many films – it was just surprising to see him being so restrained. Matthew Hopkins, a historical figure and real-life monster by all accounts, was a role that was going to require an actor who was able to be sinister without being endearing, and I imagine that would have been a challenge for Price, who, try as he might, often struggled to be unlikable, even at his most vile. His performance as Hopkins was mesmerizing and terrifying, and Price gave one of most unconventional performances of his career.

The reason why Price is the only reason to watch this film is because he truly is the only person who is given a substantial role that is developed well enough. Ian Ogilvy plays the heroic Richard Marshall, and to be perfectly honest, he was unimpressive. There was nothing in his portrayal of the dashing and brave romantic hero that saves the proverbial damsel in distress that we haven’t seen countless times before. In terms of the female lead of this film, Dwyer does very little other than being the aforementioned damsel who needs saving – and even if this film does seemingly try and show her as being more of a complex character, she just descends into being an object of lust and desire for the characters. Robert Russell is entertaining as the gleefully villainous John Stearne, but we never see his character developed enough to actually care about him. It isn’t odd for a film such as Witchfinder General to lack completely convincing performances, but it also isn’t difficult to just develop your characters beyond being stereotypical figures common in these kinds of films. This is exactly the kind of film you watch if you’re a fan of either the subject matter or if you’re like me, a huge fan of Vincent Price. Other than that, there is really very little else in terms of this cast to recommend regarding Witchfinder General.

Witchfinder General was released in 1968. By today’s standards, this is a film that wouldn’t get made (audiences seem to have lost their taste for historical horror films such as this, making Witchfinder General a great remnant of a time where horror films could be simple period pieces). However, watching Witchfinder General in the modern day is interesting, because audiences today would react far differently to this film than audiences of nearly half a century ago. What I am referring to is the use of violence – Witchfinder General is a very violent film, but it is relatively tame by today’s standards. A film is supposed to stand on its own merits, but with a film such as this, to locate it to the era in which it was made shows how audacious it is. There are some genuinely shocking moments of complete and utter violence, and considering it was only eight years before this that audiences saw a flushing toilet on screen (in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal classic Psycho), the sadism present in Witchfinder General is actually quite progressive. There are some truly despicable moments in this film, which are still pretty shocking today, so one can only imagine how dreadfully terrifying it would have been for audiences in 1968. Judging by some reactions taken from the time of this film’s release, many people were severely opposed to this film and its representations of violence. It had several detractors, which caused the film to be hated in its home country, and virtually ignored in other parts of the world. Censorship butchered this film, and thus forced it to become a cult film.

For some reason, Witchfinder General has been marketed as a horror film. I take severe opposition to this idea. There is very little about this film that bears resemblance to a horror film in the traditional sense. It is actually fascinating to look at this film from its marketing standpoint, because it was shown as being the tale of a witch-hunter. It isn’t surprising that Price was top-billed, despite having much less screen-time than one would have thought – made to appear to be about a man brutally hunting witches, it is quite misleading. This film was sold as a horror film when in actuality is a historical drama. If one considers Witchfinder General to be a horror film, it isn’t because of its subject matter dealing with witches and witchcraft – it is more about the public’s fear of witches and the occult that forms the basis of this film. There is not a single moment of witchcraft in this film. Yet, Witchfinder General is still notable for being very disturbing in how it represents the witch-hunts. Torture and rape are just some of the horrific injustices done to characters in this film, and Witchfinder General never shies away from being utterly shocking. There are some awfully cruel sequences, and if one has to consider Witchfinder General a horror film, it has to be because of its unhinged approach to violence. Unsettling and demented, if there is a reason to watch this film other than for Price, it is how brutal and macabre this film is.

Witchfinder General is a film that has become somewhat of a cult classic. I don’t entirely disagree with the idea that this is a good film, but it isn’t as noteworthy and brilliant as it seems, in my opinion. There are far too many flaws within Witchfinder General that force it away from reaching the heights it has been projected to in subsequent years. I have mentioned the problems with the character development, with the archetypal structure of the dashing hero being confronted with the dastardly villain and his henchman, who threaten to tear our hero and his love interest apart. It isn’t exactly unique in its story structure. However, that isn’t the only flaw. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that this is a film that leads nowhere. It has a very strong opening act, and it seems to be a thrilling tale of mystery and intrigue within a particular period in British history not explored very often. The fault lies in the fact that Witchfinder General loses its way halfway through, and the promising potential introduced at the beginning is lost when this film culminates in a final act that is rushed, shabby and overly mediocre. The ending is disappointing, and none of these characters received realistic conclusions. This film is only 86-minutes long, which means it could’ve easily just been extended a little bit to give this film a satisfying ending. The final act is a complete mess, and the slow-burning nature of this film, with its sinister tone and beautifully grotesque themes – were abandoned for a disjointed ending that was far too action-packed and unfocused than I would’ve liked. It didn’t quite ruin Witchfinder General for me, but it did prevent me from loving it. A stronger ending would’ve made this a great film. Instead, the actual ending just resulted in a middling, but still rather good, effort.

Witchfinder General is a good film. It may not be the most exciting film you will see, and you might be disappointed if you go into this film believing that you are about to watch a horror film. However, there are merits, such as the fact that it features one of Vincent Price’s most authentic and realistic performances that serve to be an exercise in subtlety for the veteran horror-master. The use of violence in this film makes it also worthwhile, as it may not be overly macabre, but it is fascinating to watch what was considered too brutal for audiences in the Sixties, and even if we see worse nowadays, the torture scenes in Witchfinder General are still very unsettling. This is a good film, and while it remains flawed, it is entertaining and very well-made, and it stars Vincent Price, which is always a reason to watch something like Witchfinder General.

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