Though Witchfinder General (1968) is usually referred to as a horror film, it’s really more of a Western – or what a Western might be like if it was set in 17th-century Britain.
Perhaps – with Vincent Price as the star – it has organically morphed into a horror flic. In about 100 films, most of them dreadful, Price cleverly detracted from awful production values with camp histrionics, drawing our attention from rubber spiders and bats on strings to what really mattered – the fey fun of it all.
But this is different. Director Michael Reeves somehow forced Price to drain his characterization of schlock, and deliver one of the best performances of his career.
We have the energetic, real-life actions of Mathew Hopkins (Price), a self-appointed ‘witch hunter’, who clip-clopped through English villages during the English Civil War (1642-51), exploiting the chaotic political situation, ordering his grim coterie of lackeys to hang and/or burn anyone he suspected of practicing witchcraft.
Although – for 1968 – the violence is intense – today there’s nothing here that can’t be seen on current prime-time television.
In 2005, the magazine Total Film claimed Witchfinder General as the 15th-greatest horror film of all time. Maybe they meant ‘cult horror film’. Whatever, there is something especially odd that pervades this film – a dread that one feels when reading the best of Poe and Lovecraft. In the case of Witchfinder General, certainly juxtaposing the bucolic English countryside with scenes of gruesome torture, and having the gentle braying of sheep split by human howls of pain and hysterical weeping, causes a psychic imbalance.
In fact, juxtaposition is the one way to build horror – and tension (just ask Mr. Hitchcock).
Ultimately, it is Vincent Price’s performance that takes it over the top. Never again will he portray evil with such detachment, if not concealed bemusement. The film does not indicate his character’s level of religious conviction, nor does it offer a back story on his dark pursuits. And why should it? The cattle are lowing, black birds call across golden fields, and off stage-right we hear the unearthly shrieking of a poor soul set ablaze. In what kind of world could such things be explained?