Michael Reeves / UK / 1968 / 87 mins
A film in which the director despised his leading man, was branded sadistic and disgusting by critics and sensors alike upon release, and had a budget so low as to make most other low budget films look like Waterworld, should have been confined to ignominy.
And yet, Witchfinder General is as relevant today as it was upon its release. Set during the English Civil War, Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a man charged by Cromwell to root out witchcraft and other spiritual heresies. Price (in probably his greatest role) scours the Shires of England, putting the fear of God into anybody who looks, talks, or acts funny.
Ably assisted by his threatening henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell), the pair reveal how power corrupts as they put to death any buxom bar-maids that refuse their advances. Unfortunately for the duo, they run afoul of a dashing soldier played by a pre-Return of the Saint Ian Ogilvy, who vows to kill Hopkins for falsely accusing his sweetheart of witchcraft.
In retrospect, all the ingredients are there for a clichéd mess of a film. To say that the casting of Price (a man with a reputation for ham-acting) was met with disapproval by director Michael Reeves (resentful at having Price forced upon him by the studio) would be an understatement of the highest order.
Despite these tensions, the film works. The English shires have never looked so menacing. The themes of the film (such as the abuse of power) are as relevant today as they were then, and despite technological advances, the film hasn’t aged too badly, an ominously brooding soundtrack adding to the gloomy aura of a nation at war with itself.
Price didn’t enjoy the shoot, critics panned it upon its release, and yet, like a fine wine, it has improved with age, often highlighted as the high water mark of 1960s British Horror films.
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