Witchfinder General (1968)


Great Britain is a strange place. Ask any Briton if England is considered part of Europe, and they’ll answer “No;” depute the fact that the rest of the world recognizes it as such. Not to mention that its own history is strongly tied with France; a country even the British would agree is part of Europe. As such, they seem to be a rather silly people. Except for their undying fascination with witchcraft; a fascination that is deadly serious.

While I realize that the whole witch scare back in the early 1600s stretched farther than just Britain, movies about said fascination are almost always set in Britain. Okay, two films that I know of personally: Mark of the Devil and tonight’s Witchfinder General. Sure it’s only two films, but that’s two more films about witch infestations than the US has. Mark of the Devil was famous during Britain’s video nasty craze for its (by British standards) extensive gore. Witchfinder General is famous because: it stars Vincent Price, and it shares its name with one of the forefathers of doom metal.

Withfinder General - Witch Trials

Having either one of those above conditions is grounds for a review. Having both makes me giddy like a young girl who forgot that torture porn went out of vogue a couple years ago.

Truth be told, there’s very little explicit torture in either. The Witchfinder General not being anywhere on par with Hostel, one’s uneasiness coming mainly from the rampant sexual assaults. Both the Witchfinder Anthony Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his marvelous (in the best possible horrific way) sidekick Stearne (Robert Russell) both end up assaulting the film’s heroine, Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer).

Witchfinder General - Oops

Sara lies with the Witchfinder in an futile attempt to convince Hopkins that her priest uncle John (Rupert Davies) isn’t a witch. She fails, but not before Hopkins leaves Stearne in charge long enough to rape her. Which brings Sara’s fiance Richard (Ian Ogilvy) into the mix. He’s a rising star in Cromwell’s army; looking strikingly similar to a young Mark Hamilton.

Much has been made of how director Michael Reeves would’ve become Britain’s next autuer had drugs not ended his life early. And the signs are certainly there. His pacing and shot design clearly shine as someone who was lucky enough to grow up watching the French New Wave revolutionize the art-form.

Witchfinder General - Tower

Robert Russell, as Stearne, is another star of the show. As hard as it is to believe of someone showing up Vincent Price, rumor is Price was quite unhappy acting for neophyte (director name) and so gave a cold, detached performance. A performance that both makes the Witchfinder character, and allowed Russell to steal the show.

Stearne reminds me of Tuco from the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as he’s both smarmy yet completely rational. Stearne’s the only member of the witch hunting crew with the brains to realize that taking on an officer in Cromwell’s army might not be a good idea.

Witchfinder General - Hopkins

Hell, even after Hopkins and Stearne know that Captain Richard has vowed revenge against them, Hopkins refuses to change course. “Oh, we’ll be fine,” he reasons, “we’ll just ride on to the next town.” A town where Cromwell’s army stops them, commandeers Stearne’s horse, and shoots Stearne in the arm causing his ever-loving boss to leave him to rot. Stearne, after knifing his way to freedom, is left to remonisce about what a better plan his was.

Then Richard kicks his head so hard that one of Stearne’s eyeballs explodes from his face.

Witchfinder General - Finale

Which is a better fate than the one Hopkins gets. After watching Stearne torture his wife at Hopkins’ command, Richard wastes no time once he’s freed to grab a hand axe and slash away at the Witchfinder’s prostate form. Probably further traumatizing his bride as he continues to slash well after Hopkins is dead.

Ending the film on the dourest note possible, as two of Richard’s soldiers come to save him, find him savagely pounding the bloody heap on the floor that used to be a man, and decide to end the charade by shooting a bullet into what’s left of the Witchfinder. Leaving us, the viewer, watch Richard blankly stare his soldiers, screaming about how they stole his revenge from him.

Witchfinder General - WItch Burning

I refuse to any research into the real Witchfinder General (as Hopkins was a real, historical figure), but I’m guessing his marriage couldn’t have lasted long after that.


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