The late 1960’s saw a major shift in horror films. There have always been horror films which had an inordinate amount of gore and violence, but were always relegated to the niche cinemas which catered to horror exploitation films. In 1968 it all changed with the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Not only did this film graphically show gore and violence on the screen it also paired it with a well-told story. Another film which became infamous the very same year for it’s portrayal of torture, rape and sadism on the screen was British filmmaker Michael Reeves’ horror film, Witchfinder General.
Witchfinder General starred horror icon Vincent Price in the title role as Matthew Hopkins who was tasked as the Witchfinder General by the Cromwell government during the English Civil War of the 17th-century. His Hopkins would travel the region of East Anglia (Cromwell-controlled territory) rooting out witchcraft and sorcery wherever they might be found. Assisting him in this task is the thuggish, brute Stearne (played by Robert Russell) who relished in torturing suspected witches in towns the two visit. It’s during one such visit to the town of Brandeston, Suffolk that Hopkins and Stearne begin a sequence of events which would pit them against the soldier Richard Marshall (who also happens to fight on the same side as Hopkins and Stearne) whose fiancee and her uncle became the latest victims of the Witchfinder General’s sadistic methods of rooting out confessions.
The film as a horror has less to do with the supernatural, but more of the hypocritical horror which begets a political environment where powerful men contest for more power and uses fear and the superstitious ignorance of a populace to cement their power. In this amoral vacuum comes in the opportunistic Matthew Hopkins who uses the power given to him by his government to not just do his duty to eradicate witchcraft but also abuse it for his own personal (and as seen in the film a way to sate his own personal lusts) gain. It’s this hypocritical nature of who was suppose to be a Puritanical and righteous agent of God which emphasizes the true historical horror of religion and politics becoming one and the same.
Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins was at the top of his game in Witchfinder General. He gives his role not just an air of superiority over everyone he meets and deals with, but he also makes Hopkins’ truly an amoral character who sees nothing wrong in taking advantage of his position and actually feels like he deserves the desperate attentions of those willing to do anything to save their loved ones from his machinations. Robert Russell as his licentious and sadistic assistant Stearne also does a great job in portraying an individual who might seem brutish and thuggish, but who was also more honest with is situation than his master. It makes for an interesting pair despite their roles being the film’s prime antagonists.
The film more than truly earned the outcry it received upon it’s release in 1968 as scenes of torture and sadism was extreme for a British horror film industry so used to the Gothic sensibilities of the Hammer Films of the era. Graphic depictions of burnings, torture and drowning were done not to seem gratuitious or to cater to the burgeoning gorehound crowd of the era, but done so matter-of-factly that they seem even more horrific.
The Witchfinder General really helped usher in the death of gothic horror which dominated the genre with the Hammer Films in the UK and the Edgar Allan Poe films of Roger Corman in the US. The film continues to impress new generations of horror fans and is still considered by older fans of the genre as one of the best horror films ever made. For some the film might look dated due to the acting (most of the actors of the era were stage actors first and film ones second) and the effects work, but they also fail to look at the film in context of the era and how even by today’s standard it would still shock those not well-versed in the genre of horror. They definitely don’t make horror films like this anymore and that’s a shame on many levels.