Witchfinder General

Moviedrome, a BBC2 series originally hosted by Alex Cox, is where I saw many cult movies for the first time. Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General was one of these, screened in 1992 as half of what was dubbed the ‘Religious Madness Double Bill‘. John Huston’s Blood Wise being the accompanying film shown.

He may be keen to observe platitudes such as ‘The Lord’s work is a noble thing,’ but I’m not quite sure how much witchfinder Matthew Hopkins’ religious madness is to blame for the large numbers of witches and warlocks he dispatches here, as his love of money and sadism would also have to be considered major factors. This is a man who loves his job. He travels around East Anglia with his equally psychopathic sidekick John Stearne, investigating accusations of withcraft and sorcery.

Hopkins certainly has a high rate of success in proving these accusations true, but the odds are very much stacked in his favour. His methods of discovering the ‘truth’ include torturing the suspects during interrogations and if confessions fail to be extracted, then he can still prove their guilt.

As two women and a man are tied up and lowered from a bridge into a foul looking river, he explains with an inscrutable face that if they should sink, he will know they have been lying. And if they manage to swim or float, then guess what? Yep, that will prove their guilt ‘beyond a shadow of doubt in the sight of God,’ as Satan will have taken control of their bodies. They will then be withdrawn from the water and hanged by the neck until they are dead.


It may not take a hotshot lawyer to see a flaw in this logic.

The movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett, a fictional account of real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who is said to have ordered the death of around 200 people in the space of just a few years in 17th century England.

What’s frightening here isn’t any jumpscare, spooky soundtrack, or vampires, demons, zombies, ghosts or monsters.

It’s the religious fervour whipped up by Hopkins in the towns and villages he visits, along with the attitude of locals, whose engrained belief in both Christianity and superstition, ensures they won’t intervene on behalf of the falsely accused. Many even gleefully encourage the hangings, drownings and burnings that Hopkins orders with an air consisting of equal measures of moral superiority and malevolence.

At one point, we’re shown the aftermath of a burning. A group of children roast some potatoes in the same flames that have so recently engulfed and taken the life of an innocent woman, and in scenes like these Reeves demonstrated his potential to become a top filmmaker.

Witchfinder General - Children Roasting Potatoes

Price turns in one of his finest ever performances here and ironically he was only given the starring role because small American independent AIP contributed enough to the film’s £83,000 budget to be able to dictate that an actor contracted to them was given top billing.

Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasance and on the set, the director and Price clashed, mainly because Reeves wanted Price to tone down the campy, often melodramatic style of acting favoured by AIP. The famous story here is that, during one fierce row, Price approached Reeves and boasted about the fact that he had acted in eighty-four films, before asking Reeves how many films he’d made.

The twenty-four year old answered: ‘Two good ones.’

I’m guessing he was gambling that Price had never actually seen The She Beast, a schlocky micro-budget Euro-horror with nothing much to recommend it.

The action, and there is plenty of that in Witchfinder General, is set against the backdrop of the English Civil War and been compared to a western revenge tale. You can see why, with horses galloping across the lowlands of Suffolk, almost as a substitute for the American Plains, the revenge drama element coming via a roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has several very strong reasons for wanting Hopkins dead.

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General

Perhaps significantly, cinematographer John Coquillon was later given several jobs by Sam Peckinpah, including his last western Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973).

Coincidentally, around the time of Witchfinder General‘s release, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was being heavily criticised for what many critics judged as excessive violence. Reeves’ film would experience similar problems in this regard.

In Britain, censors demanded a number of cuts in order for it to be granted even an X-certificate.

Nowadays, when massively popular TV series like Game of Thrones can include scenes that veer towards torture porn, this might sound strange but back then sex and violence were high on the lists of what moral majority types wanted banned in Britain. Reeves was forced to comply with the British Board of Film Classification.

The film found many fans but some significant enemies too. In the Sunday Times, Dilys Powell dismissed it as ‘peculiarly nauseating’, while Alan Bennett in The Listener called it ‘the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I’ve seen,’ before adding: ‘There are no laughs in Witchfinder General.’ Which is like complaining about the lack of gore in the Lady in the Van or The History Boys.

Witchfinder General - Burning the Witch

Since then its reputation has grown, although not everybody came round. Echoing earlier criticism, Ken Russell told Benjamin Halligan (author of a biography of Reeves) that ‘this is one of the worst films I have ever seen and certainly the most nauseous.’ Even Alex Cox, in his Moviedrome intro, damned it with some pretty faint praise, calling it ‘a fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poes films.’

The standing of Michael Reeves, who was dead within months of the film being premiered, has also grown. In recent years he’s been hailed as ‘the lost genius of British cinema’ and ‘lost visionary of British film’.

Re-titled The Conqueror Worm in America, Witchfinder General was made by Tigon British Productions, who were also behind Reeves’ previous film The Sorcerers and who would later put out Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) – which, together with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man (1973), has been referred to as the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of Folk Horror.

And more on that term in the months to come.

Maverick Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, The Neon Demon) had planned to direct a remake but it was announced last month that he would now act as a producer on the project, with John Hillcoat (Lawless) taking on directing duties instead.

‘I’m drawn to the dynamic departures behind this remake,’ Hillcoat told Empire. ‘The idea of a world pushed to extremes where fear preys upon all, unleashing religious fanaticism, rival factions, tribalism, heretics, and witch hunts… feels strangely familiar in today’s world.’

And yes, sadly, anti-witchcraft legislation still exists in a number of countries, albeit ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is only nation where practising it remains legally punishable by death. A grotesque state of affairs and one that shows no signs of ending. The kingdom set up a special ‘Anti-Witchcraft Unit’ in 2009. Since then hundreds of men and women (mostly foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia) have been convicted of ‘magical crimes’.

Just as the opportunistic Hopkins came up with the idea of implicating Marshall and his fiance in witchcraft purely as part of a personal grudge, it is suspected that many of the recent cases in Saudi are the result of the migrant workers complaining about issues like not being paid and their employers’ retaliating by accusing them of witchcraft.

The spirit of Matthew Hopkins lives on.

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