We take a look at Vincent Price’s savagely brilliant Witchfinder General, the moral of which seems to be: life sucks, buy a helmet.
Horror films don’t have to centre around the supernatural. Sometimes the fact that something is just horrific is enough to include it in the genre. What if it’s also loosely based on true events? What if it stars the greatest horror actor of the time? Then you probably have the way-ahead-of-its-time precursor to torture porn, Witchfinder General.
I say loosely based on real events because the protagonists, Matthew Hopkins, and his sidekick John Stearne, were real people who went around killing women in the name of Christianity.
A little research will quickly reveal that their motives were really based around money and plain old-fashioned sadism. This is brilliantly illustrated here in the film with Hopkins just making shit up as he goes along. Need a new form of execution to keep things from going stale? Hows about burning? He literally comes up with the idea on the spot. He’s like a cross between the Marquis De Sade and Alan Sugar. No, wait, that’s just Alan Sugar.
The very presence of Vincent Price in a horror is the mark of quality for lovers of older horror films. The man was the living embodiment of the word creepy. The weird voice, campy ghoulish demeanour and larger than life stage presence meant that he was the most sought after genre actor of his time.
The opening pre-credits scene with the hanging and Price’s Hopkins appearing on a horse is viscerally effective largely because Price looks so fucking evil. It even made me forget his turn as Egghead in Batman. Well almost. Price made a lot of films and was mostly ace in all of them but he considers this one of his best performances.
The Price is right
With such a large body of work to choose from why did I pick this one you ask? In its day this film was considered extreme. Its depictions of torture and rather matter of fact executions hadn’t really been seen before in a film with such a big name star. It is by no means a horror masterpiece but I think it stands head and shoulders above the usual fare that rival production companies were churning out. It has that filmed-in-England feel to it that made it a bit grimy, which is good if you’re trying to depict England in the 1600s.
We also have future Saint and not-quite-Bond Ian Ogilvy. For all you Ogilvy groupies or Ogilvites, as I’m sure you’re called, there is even a smoking hot sex scene. It feature one of the weirdest sex scene soundtracks I have ever heard. To put this into context, I have heard a lot of sex scene soundtracks, in fact I’ve deleted my history more times than Marty McFly. The scene itself is not particularly graphic, however it deserves something less akin to Jethro Tull and more like Barry White. Nobody in the history of the world wants to bump uglies to pastoral folk ditties and no one should ever have to.
Every character in this film is fantastically unlikable for one reason or another. The locals are all halfwit molesty inbreds, like school play versions of Deliverance’s squeal lovers. Every one of them resembles Peter Jackson’s carrot chomping cameo from Lord of the Rings and they all love a bit of lady murder.
The nastiest of this bad bunch is however John Stearne. Hopkins’ right hand man and all-round bell-end. He is a brilliantly cliched monster of a human being. If he’s not torturing women he’s drunkenly groping them or raping them. I believe in the 1600s he would have been referred to as a ladies’ man but in this day and age that shit just won’t ride.
From the start of the production, the director Michael Reeves didn’t want Vincent Price in the film and the two really hated one another. It doesn’t show, however, with a consummate performance by Price that manages to make Dr Phibes seem like a slightly maladjusted miscreant with a biblical plague hobby.
If ever there was a character that deserved to be the only cast member with his own theme music it’s him. Reeves’s directorial style can really be summed up with the word screaming. I have only heard more screaming in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the gold standard of scream cinema. Ironically the film Scream has very little screaming by comparison.
Of particular interest to me is the ending. I hate a film with a happy ending, especially a horror film. This film really delivers here, by having an absolutely mental ending with not one shred of happiness to be seen.
Nothing is really resolved, the hero goes bonkers, the girl is screaming the place down and our chief torturer is wounded but it appears not mortally. There are no winners here, no one is happy with the situation at hand. It is the perfect ending to a decidedly grimy film. I don’t want there to be justice served and a ride off into the sunset. I want misery and fallout from all the bad shit everyone has witnessed and experienced, with added screaming.
Let’s face it, this is by far a more realistic scenario. To make this ending even more poignant, I did some research into what happened to Hopkins and Stearne in real life and found that nothing happened. They just got rich from their horrible deeds and died in their beds at home. The moral of this film seems to be life sucks, buy a helmet. Deep man, deep.
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.