Witchfinder General is an unusual horror movie, if you can even call it a horror movie. Is The Devils a horror movie, in your opinion? If so, then you will want to classify Witchfinder General as one also.
Not that Witchfinder General is as rough or as magnificent as The Devils; in fact it’s subdued. Even Vincent Price as the titular character gives what is arguably the least camp performance of his career, aside from his turn in Laura. It’s just that it doesn’t attempt to scare the viewer with conventional means. Nobody jumps out from behind anything or makes any sudden noises. The horror is in the situation, even as we see scenes that were considered graphic for the release date of 1968. The horror is that the main character and his assistant are brutal serial killers who kill in public, in the daytime, and with the cooperation of the authorities.
Based on a novel which gives a fictional account of the deeds of a real person called Matthew Hopkins who operated during the English Civil War between the Roundheads and the Royalists, Witchfinder General gives us a worst-case scenario of witch hunting. If Hopkins (Price) and his assistant Stearne (John Russell) come to interrogate you, you are going to die. And all it takes is for one person to accuse you of being a witch, and of course, pay the witch finders. And terrible things will happen before you die. Worst of all, it’s clear that the torturers have no religious reasons for doing their work, not that it would excuse them if they did. More than once they say something along the lines of, “Remember our power. He might just be a witch.” Yep, they just get to say who is a witch and then kill them.
This movie even gives us the situation later made hilarious in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: if you are bound and thrown in the water and you swim or float, you are a witch, and if you drown, you’re innocent (but still dead). Here, those fortunate enough to float (with the help of the torturers holding the ropes in such a way that they do) are hanged. And it’s not played for laughs.
There’s a bit more to the story than killing witches, but not much. A young Roundhead (Ian Ogilvy) comes home from the front to find his lover (Hilary Dwyer) has been raped by Hopkins and Stearne, and her uncle (Rupert Davies) has been tortured and hanged as a witch, so he vows revenge. He’s on his way to a great career in Cromwell’s army, so his buddy (Nicky Hinton, as Noel Fielding as The Hitcher, minus the green paint) tries to stop him from seeking payback. I’ll leave it to you to see whether Ogilvy or Price prevails at the end of the film. I will say that you will hope for the witchfinders to come to a nasty end.
Witchfinder General stands out from the other low budget films of the time. It’s not exactly an art film, but it’s much better than schlock. Even though it’s a revenge picture, it’s not exploitation. It’s notable that, although it was made for less than 100,000 pounds, it is in color, and not the super-saturated Wizard of Oz color we often see in 60s horror. The color looks realistic, like 70s color film, and the movie mingles fiction and realism in an entertaining way.
Hell, I don’t even like realism in my horror, and I’m recommending this film. I would have been happier if one of the witches had had real powers and returned from the grave to hand Vincent Price his ass. But that doesn’t happen. Everyone in the film is human; there are no supernatural elements. And even while admitting that this film is the type that is not usually my thing, I urge you to check this out on Netflix instant. It’s worth your time.