Michael Reeves, “Witchfinder General” (1968)
Loosely based on the exploits of the English 17th-century witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, this movie is a dark low-budget exploration of personal corruption, abuse and violence in a society wracked by civil war and the collapse of political stability and law and order. Hero and villain alike are undone by taking the law into their own hands, no matter how justified the reason may be. In the year 1645 Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) roam eastern England hunting out witches in various villages: their techniques include brutal torture to induce false confessions of men and women accused of witchcraft. They ride toward a place called Brandeston and a trooper come from there, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has just visited his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Devies) the village priest, shows them the direction. Once there the witch-hunters round up Lowes and others accused of witchcraft, throw them into jail and torture them sadistically. In spite of Sara’s attempts to save her uncle, he and the other accused are executed and Hopkins and Stearne move on.
Marshall returns to Brandeston, learns from Sara what has happened to her uncle and vows to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. From this moment on the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Marshall risks his career – and possibly his life – pursuing the witch-hunters who in turn plan to trap Marshall and Sara by accusing them of witchcraft. The double plotting sounds very silly but the serious tone of the movie, the level of credible violence that has occurred by this point in the film and the depth of characterisation make the second part of “Witchfinder General” no laughing matter and indeed quite powerful as viewers are left to wonder how intense and melodramatic the climax will be when Marshall and Hopkins confront each other.
Though made for commercial purposes on a small budget, the film has excellent production values: the cinematography is good with long stationary shots that take in wide swathes of peaceful countryside with historic buildings that give the movie a distinctive English flavour, and the few bright colours of the film which tends towards dark colours and shadows hold up well after over 40 years. The use of long static shots gives the film a staged look which may well be the intention – the Puritan rulers of England from 1649 to 1660 closed down all theatres – though there is one excellent scene in which Stearne stumbles into a forest after taking a bullet in his arm: anticipating his pain, the camera pans away from him to the forest background while he extracts the bullet and screams, then pans back to him. Reinforcing the film’s commercial intent, the music soundtrack is very dramatic, overbearing and old-fashioned in style with melodies straight out of American horse operas: the association with Westerns may be deliberate as here, the government as represented by Marshall and Hopkins are routing out elements hostile to it just as the US government routed out and shoved indigenous Americans into reservations two centuries later.
For a highly melodramatic plot in which screaming is an unfortunate constant, the acting is restrained and well done with notable performances from the male leads. Price is grim and implacable as Hopkins yet commanding, charismatic and not above exploiting Sara when she offers sexual favours or cheating on others including his assistant. Russell is suitably nasty as the vicious Stearne. Ogilvy acquits himself well in the meaty role of Marshall and his final scene is a surprise shocker. The main characters are delineated in detail so that though they commit unspeakable atrocities, viewers at least understand their motives, however gross they are, and can indentify with them: Hopkins and Stearne are unlikeable but we all know of people who would behave in similar ways in similar contexts.
The film doesn’t attempt to explain witchcraft but instead focusses on the accusations, the use of torture and particular torture methods by witch-hunters and the punishments they carried out. For all that there is a theme of how witch-hunts (figurative as well as literal) can occur in insecure societies and how some individuals can use violence, ignorance and belief in rumour for selfish personal reasons. Torture and violence take a toll on people’s psychology, corrupting and degrading them as a result. Viewers may feel relieved that the movie versions of Hopkins and Stearne are punished for exploiting people but Marshall gives up his humanity and is no better than his enemies. No-one can feel happy about his fall from grace and the hint that the social and political situation in England at the time, stressed by the voice-over narration at the movie’s start, is in part responsible for Hopkins and Stearne being able to flourish and create havoc is strong. In spite of the film’s age – the acting, the film’s style and even some accents can appear old-fashioned to modern audiences – the intended message is as important as ever and is more so in an age of continuous war across western Asia and northern Africa, ongoing global economic crisis that slowly grinds people into poverty and a cowed news media peddling propaganda, scare stories and lies, all of which surely benefit political and economic elites who are careful to hide their motives and interests.
The real-life Matthew Hopkins was much younger than the man who appears in the film and assisted John Stearne who was originally a landowner and farmer. Hopkins died from pneumonia in his late twenties in 1647 though there has been an intriguing rumour that when general opinion in England turned against him, he emigrated to the Plymouth colony in eastern North America and instigated witch-hunting activities that led to the Salem witch trials.