Witchfinder General (1968)

*. I don’t remember when I first saw Witchfinder General but I do remember being underwhelmed. I’d heard and read a lot about it and so my expectations were perhaps too high to be met.
*. Having lived with it for a while now I find it growing on me with every re-watch. Keeping in mind what it came out of helps. A low-budget American-British co-production from Tigon British Film Productions (a discount Hammer) and American International (who were just looking for a tax write-off), it’s remarkable that it was noteworthy at all. Add the fact that it wasn’t the movie Michael Reeves had planned on making and it’s even more impressive.
*. The main changes in the original plan came about because (1) Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasence to play Matthew Hopkins and when Vincent Price came on board (at AIP’s insistence) the part had to be re-imagined and re-written, and (2) the violence had to be toned down quite a bit to get approval from the censors.
*. The fighting between Reeves and Price has become legendary. Price, however, was a professional and turned in one of his finest performances. One of their confrontations resulted in the following exchange: Price: “I’ve made 87 films. What have you done?” Reeves: “I’ve made three good ones.”
*. As delicious as this bitchiness is, it’s wrong on two counts. Price had only (!) made 75 films at the time, while Reeves had directed two, neither of which can really be counted as “good.” I mean, She Beast and The Sorcerers are both interesting and well worth checking out, but they didn’t give him any bragging rights.
*. It’s hard to know what to make of Reeves. There’s just not enough evidence to draw on. He’s become a kind of cult figure, largely because of this movie, which he made when he was only 24. The next year he would die of a barbiturate overdose. That kind of thing has a way of stamping your ticket to the pantheon. Would he have gone on to greater things? All we can see is that the potential was there.

*. What strikes me most deeply about Witchfinder General is the pervasive moral bleakness. This is a horror movie, but despite its subject matter it doesn’t have a hint of the supernatural about it. There are no witches to be found, and the monsters are all human.
*. The juxtaposition of cruelty with the beauty of the English countryside only further underlines the association of human nature with violence. In a way the villains here aren’t monsters; they’re the normal ones. Hopkins is just the pious hypocrite who is really a lech while Stearne is the bully who is a coward. There’s nothing remarkable about such types. What’s surprising is that they’ve risen to the top.
*. This is also brought home by the cutaways to the faces in the crowd. This is a kind of community horror, as we saw in Two Thousand Maniacs! and would see again in The Wicker Man (on the DVD commentary track Steve Haberman likens them to the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Reeves being a big Don Siegel fan).
*. The world has turned upside-down. It seems like Cromwell’s soldiers should represent the ultimate authority in the land, but it’s Matthew Hopkins who has the law on his side and he is totally for hire. This is one of the most politically nihilistic movies I’ve seen, and indeed such a judgment might (and has) been extended even further. Kim Newman: “Reeves’ masterpiece is one of the most downbeat movies ever made, a ninety-minute negation of every moral precept horror films have stood for.” Danny Peary: “It is safe to say that no director in cinema history exhibited such a consistently depressing and angry view of the world and humanity as Reeves.” I think that last maybe goes too far, based on the slim evidence we have, but I can see where Peary’s coming from.

*. Reeves had originally wanted to film the Battle of Naseby but I don’t see where that would have added anything. I do think it’s too bad we don’t get to see a countryside littered with corpses, as he also had apparently planned. I imagine this looking something like Goya’s Disasters of War and it would have fit right in with the tone of the piece.
*. Another level of the moral bleakness can be seen in how quickly Sara falls in line with what Hopkins wants. Which is to say, she’s immediately on to him and makes the bargain on the spot. It’s only when she’s raped by Stearne that she breaks down.
*. I don’t usually like to go too far in symbolic readings of movies, but sticking with the pervasiveness of the evil I’ve mentioned here’s another observation from Peary: “The evil is all-encompassing, as is evident when Hopkins kills suspected heretics by/in fire, by/in water (drowning), and in the air (hanging); and is himself brutally killed deep within the earth.” I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess it works.
*. Was I just being thick in not seeing much in it the first time I saw it? Well, few people did when it came out. It was mostly ignored, or written off as just another Vincent Price AIP-Poe entry. Even more recently Alex Cox called it a “fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films.” What most critics responded to at the time was its sadism and violence, and in this department it has, of course, been left far behind.
*. So I could imagine a lot of people coming to this movie for the first time and not being that affected. But it’s a movie that puts its hooks in you and keeps pulling.

2 thoughts on “Witchfinder General (1968)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Moral bleakness is right; a bit like The Wicker Man, there’s a battle between good and evil that doesn’t work out for anyone, and that’s very unappealing when you’re young, and gains resonance when you’re older.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, this one often gets compared to Wicker Man as an example of “folk horror.” Not sure I love the label but the similarities are there. I agree with the gaining resonance, even though I personally feel like I’m getting more idealistic as I get older and the nihilism of today’s horror is putting me off more and more. Kids these days . . .


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